wed 17/10/2018

Capriccio, Garsington Opera review - a classy evening with words and music | reviews, news & interviews

Capriccio, Garsington Opera review - a classy evening with words and music

Capriccio, Garsington Opera review - a classy evening with words and music

Stardust from soprano Miah Persson and fine company in Strauss's conversation-piece

Artists and patrons listen to the Italian Tenor (Caspar Singh) and Soprano (Nika Gorič)All images by Johan Persson

Like the comedies of Mozart – the genius the artistic milieu depicted in Capriccio seems to be waiting for, if its original 1770s setting is observed – the more conversational operas of Richard Strauss depend far more than one often realises on conducting that sets a stylish, buoyant pace. Without it, and even more more rehearsal time than Garsington allows, musical heaven remains just out of reach. This was still a classy performance, always well co-ordinated between stage and pit, strongly cast and handsomely conceived, an elegant entertainment about the nature of opera and its sister arts tailor-made for an afternoon and evening in one of southern England's most beautiful valleys.

By merely alluding to the rococo in the salon of a country house otherwise elegantly modern (early 1940s was the aim), director Tim Albery's production and Tobias Hoheisel's designs, first seen at Santa Fe but fitting the open, connected ambience of Garsington Opera's fabulously designed pavilion, keep the neoclassical element just alive in what still feels like a contemporary environment. Here the meaning of art can once again be discussed in detachment, parallel to the aching context of David Hare's The Moderate Soprano, which would seem in retrospect to have elements of Capriccio in mind. Strauss may have intended to allude to the destruction of all he cherished in revolutionary destruction just around the corner for the inhabitants of the French chateau, and bombs were falling when Capriccio was premiered in 1942.

Should one worry that the light tone with which serious artistic ideas are laid before the public avoids completely the wider implications of the time in which it was written? Not at all, declares this very up-to-the-minute conversation piece. At Garsington you don't ask what doubtful act allows such frivolity in a sunlit chateau; the questions of Auden's "A Summer Night" don't arise if the times of day indicated in the work are mirrored in the seeming harmony of what's going on in nature outside, as they certainly were yesterday (even if the Gettys' reintroduced red kites are always coasting ready to snatch prey from above). Miah Persson and William Dazeley in CapriccioStardust has fallen on Garsington in the shape of Swedish soprano Miah Persson (pictured above with William Dazeley), graduated now from sweet ingenues like Sophie in Robert Carsen’s Salzburg Rosenkavalier and Anne Trulove in the Glyndebourne revival of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress to Strauss’s grandes dames. Countess Madeleine isn’t so easy to care for: a privileged if witty flirt who here snogs a poet and a composer in quick succession, whose only dilemma is which to choose (and that always seems easy, given that she prefers music to words and exits to one of composer Flamand’s themes running in the orchestra). Reminiscent of Renée Fleming in manner, Persson falls just a little short of the natural charm with which Felicity Lott overcame all reservations at Glyndebourne. But she’s absolutely the right Strauss voice, unfolding all but the most extreme high lines with warmth and opulence.

If only her conversations with the men in her life – her brother (William Dazeley), Flamand (Sam Furness) and the poet Olivier (Gavan Ring) – were more flexibly supported by conductor Douglas Boyd. You feel that all three men might be less inclined to megaphone their responses with a lighter touch from the pit, though all are first-rate singers, and it’s Furness who carries off the ardour best; he delivers his setting of Olivier’s (in fact Ronsard’s) Sonnet very sensitively, even if last night it was just a bit under the note (that happens).Scene from Garsington CapriccioBoth Furness and Ring act out their scoffing of theatre impresario La Roche’s extravagant plans to celebrate the Countess’s birthday with vigour and precision. These two ensembles after an interval which the Strauss family never wanted, but which Glyndebourne established as a precedent, are perhaps the highlights of the evening. Albery keeps his directorial hand unobtrusive, but deftly tells us who the characters are before a note has even been played - nice parallels with the company work in the Maly Theatre production of Uncle Vanya - and wisely empties the stage for the orchestra to have the Moonlight Music and the final word to itself. Perhaps first horn Caroline O'Connell gives us the subtlest singing of all at both these points.

At any rate the central debates on the nature of opera and theatre, always witty and well lined in Strauss’s own libretto in conjunction with the conductor Clemens Krauss, really zing with clarity from all, and the Italian Soprano, soaringly sung by promising newcomer Nika Gorič, caps the lines beautifully with her drunken observations. Andrew Shore (pictured above with Ring and Furness) carries off La Roche’s giant riposte with enough stage presence – his Impresario is childlike rather than a blustering boor – to keep it authoritative, though even heavily cut it’s a bit much for his voice at this late stage (a shame, as in the Royal Opera's concert performance, to also lose Strauss's references to his own earlier operas shortly afterwards). Veteran Graham Clark needs to keep the level down to lend the right nocturnal strangeness to the belated appearance of prompt Monsieur Taupe, though it's good to have a great former Mime playing another deluded king of the underworld. Opening of Strauss's Capriccio at Garsington OperaYouthfulness keeps the rest sparkling. Hanna Hipp is stylish, with fruity chest tones, playing arch actress Clairon as a 1940s Hollywood film star (shades of Bette Davis’s Margo Channing?) Ballerina Lowri Shone does pleasing work to a Couperinesque dance suite and young singers from the ever-excellent Garsington Chorus characterise the commenting servants with charm and aplomb.

It was also surprising to read in the programme that four of the players in the ravishing String Sextet which opens the work are from the Royal Academy of Music (pictured above); it’s as polished and expressive a performance as ever you’ll hear. If the full orchestra which follows sometimes feels too heavy for so needle-point a comedy, individual wind solos, especially the lower ones, are always clear and beautiful, and if ultimately one comes out without shedding a tear for the Countess’s final scene – just a bit trammelled here, without the billowing support a great Strauss conductor can provide – there’s still a song in the heart for this wise and witty endgame.

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