Opera Warhorses

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Review: Renée Fleming’s Reverential “Capriccio” at Lyric Opera – Chicago, October 28, 2014

October 29th, 2014

One of Renée Fleming’s favorite roles is the Countess Madeline in Richard Strauss’ opera 1942 opera “Capriccio”.

Lyric Opera mounted John Cox’ familiar production that time-shifts the opera from 1770s to the salon in a Parisian suburb of the 1920s (inspired by the Countess of Polignac, the famous patron of the arts). I last saw the Cox production of “Capriccio” in 1993 in San Francisco. The common element between the San Francisco Opera production and Lyric’s consists of the sets by the late Italian designer Mauro Pagano.

[Below: Renée Fleming as the Countess Madeline; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


With the Chicago performances being filmed for later DVD release, an international cast was assembled with American lyric tenor William Burden as the composer Flamand and Norwegian baritone Auden Iversen as the poet Olivier competing for the hand of the widowed Countess.

Flamand proved yet another felicitous assignment for New Jersey tenor, who excels in a wide range of lyric roles [see American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden.]

[Below: the Countess (Renée Fleming, left) listens to a debate between Flamand (Wiliam Burden, center) and Olivier (Auden Iversen, right) as to whether words or music are more important; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


His rival Olivier was the Lyric Opera debut for Auden Iversen, whose Figaro had charmed San Francisco audiences a year ago [see Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Auden Iversen and Maurizio Muraro Sparkle in San Francisco Opera “Barber of Seville” – November 14, 2013.]

In Lyric Opera’s staging, the insertion of an intermission in an opera often performed in a single act, resulted in the would be love triangle of the characters sung by Fleming, Burden and Iversen creating the most sparks in what at the Lyric is the first act.

There are three other principal characters. One is La Roche, an impresario likely modeled on Sergei Diaghilev, played with verve and a bit of bluster by bass-baritone Peter Rose.

Another character is the actress Clairon, played by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.

[Below: La Roche (Peter Rose) explains to Clairon (Anne Sofie von Otter) how he envisions staging the play in which she is to star; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. ]


The final principal is the Countess’ titled brother, an amateur actor, played by Danish baritone Bo Skovhus. The Count is a mostly comic presence, overacting his lines in a script-reading session with von Otter’s Clairon.

In the second act, where some truly funny situations emerge, including over-the-top ballet sequences with dancers Randy Herrera and Jennifer Goodman, the latter catching the adoring gaze of Skovhus’ Count, whose head bobs as he leers at her many acrobatic postures.

[Below: the Count (Bo Skovhus, right) finds the ballerina (Jennifer Goodman, center right) pleasing to his eye, while her partner (Randy Herrera, left) looks on with obvious displeasure; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]


The roles of the Italian Tenor and Italian Soprano were sung respectively by Juan Jose de Leon and Emily Birsan. The servants who straighten up the salon after the guests have left are Matthew DiBattista, Jesse Donner, Anthony Clark Evans, John Irvin, Jonathan Johnson, Will Liverman, Richard Ollarsaba and Bradley Smoak.

David Govertsen was the Majordomo and character tenor Keith Jameson was Monsieur Taupe, the prompter.

Peter McClintock directed the revival of the Cox production. Sir Andrew Davis conducted authoritatively.

Thoughts on “Capriccio”

“Capriccio” is an opera cherished by many performers, including, besides Fleming for whom it is one of her signature roles, the Lyric Opera’s music director Sir Anthony Davis.

Fleming’s Countess dominates the action of the opera, and Fleming’s beautifully lyrical singing, especially in the quiet final moments of the opera, and Davis’ affectionate reading of Strauss’ orchestral score, seem to be the main reasons for the opera’s revival.

Unlike virtually every “hit” opera, “Capriccio” was composed under uniquely trying circumstances. It appears to have provided an intellectual escape for composer Richard Strauss and his co-librettist, conductor Clemens Krauss, from the turmoil of the post-Anschluss heydays of Nazi Germany and Austria. Strauss and Krauss were artists with whom the Nazis had a more or less “live and let live” relationships.

First produced in Munich in 1942, it has never had the popularity of any of the half dozen Strauss operas that hold a place in the performance repertory.

The Chicago production, besides inserting the intermission (first tried by a major German director 15 years after the 1942 premiere) incorporates an idea of the eminent British director John Cox – that moving the action a century and half into the future would make the libretto (which abounds in references to baroque composers and ancien régime theater), less a “museum piece” and more relevant to contemporary audiences. 

[Below: Flamand (William Burden, left) plays his composition for the Countess (Renée Fleming, right); edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


My personal belief is that any impresario with the self-assurance of the character La Roche – be he a contemporary of Mozart, Diaghilev, or one from the present day – would take the operatic material that Strauss and Krauss wrote, it would have quite a different organization and flow. Strauss and Krauss collaborated during a period in which their activities were monitored and their movement limited during the years of Nazi totalitarianism.

But, ultimately, a triangle of unrequited love, in which two men are metaphors for poetry and music, is unlikely to achieve a large and enthusiastic following among the wider opera-going public.

This is not to say  the opera should not be performed. I would argue strongly for whatever safeguards are needed to assure that the production seen in Chicago is available for future generations to see.

The elegant costumes and all the furnishing and decor are the work of Robert Perdziola (who sets and costumes so enrich the John Cox production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” [See A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013.]

When the videos of the Lyric mounting become available, there will be at least three versions of Cox’ ideas alone, each with its own costume designs.

I’m not afraid of recognizing a substantive work (and “Capriccio” is one) as a “museum piece”. Some museums hold priceless works of art and culture. Having a video documentary of an important presentation of the piece will assure that others will enjoy what was seen and heard in Chicago.

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