Thursday 30 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival: Capriccio, 28 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Countess - Gabriele Fontana; Count - Ashley Holland; Flamand - Hauke Möller; Olivier - Johannes Beck; La Roche - Michael Eder; Clairon - Dalia Schaechter; M. Taupe - Johannes Preissinger; Italian soprano - Katharina Leyhe; Italian tenor - Ray M. Wade, Jr; Major-Domo - Ulrich Hielscher; Dancer - Luisa Sancho Escanero

Christian von Götz (director); Cologne Opera; Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne; Markus Stenz (conductor)

Is there a more violently controversial composer than Richard Strauss? The answer would surely be yes: Wagner at the very least is, as for very different reasons is Schoenberg. However, I am not so sure that this should be the case. Strauss leads us to ask very difficult questions; or rather, we ought to ask such questions: aesthetic, political, and moral. Wagner, on the other hand, is often made to answer for questions based upon misrepresentation. Stravinsky levelled the charge that Strauss 'didn't give a damn', and one can certainly end up feeling manipulated by a composer who might just be note-spinning, who cynically appears to know which buttons to press rather than 'believing' in what he is doing. Henze has gone further, writing: 'Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress. As with Marxism, his goal is not God but Man, whereas there are other artists who have never given a thought to the moral function of their work; for instance Richard Strauss, who is for me – perhaps I’m going too far – something like a court composer to Kaiser Wilhelm II.' The charge comes to seem even more serious when one considers Strauss's later career, and the fraught, unavoidable question of his relationship towards the Third Reich. This does not mean that it is our place to put him on trial, still less to transform him into a hero along the lines of Schoenberg or Furtwängler. It remains, however, a legitimate, indeed necessary, question to ask what it might mean to pen an apparently escapist conversation piece such as Capriccio in the darkness of 1942.

The reality, as producer Christian von Götz so ably demonstrated, is that Capriccio is intimately connected with political reality, and this heightens rather than detracts from the aesthetic disputes at its core. In one of the archetypal operas about the making of an opera, it is more than usually appropriate to add another narrative layer, in which the era of the making of Capriccio itself features. Our first sight, disturbingly set against a beautiful reading of the opening string sextet, was of the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Elysées. The opera therefore remained in France, somewhere outside Paris. And the bulk of the action, Capriccio's creation of an opera as opposed to the production's creation of Capriccio, took place in eighteenth-century costume: a final house party, in which the coming of the Gestapo might be put out of mind for a couple of hours. Is this what Strauss himself was doing? Perhaps, although more on that anon. There were from time to time reminders of approaching fate, which grew more numerous in the second act. (This was Joseph Keilberth's two-act adaptation.) Every aspect of the production, be it 'political' or 'aesthetic', showed the dichotomy to be false and worked inexorably towards the denouement: the Count's preparation of a cyanide capsule, the last vain attempt to answer the vexed question of words or music, and perhaps most chillingly of all, the prompter, Monsieur Taupe, replete with his yellow star, being left behind by the departure of the main party and offered his own carriage 'home'.

The final scene thus depicted the Countess saying farewell. Who knew when or indeed whether she would ever return after being escorted to the railway station? And yet, there was another, equally important side to what was going on. Radiantly sung by Gabriele Fontana, who had made an extraordinary recovery from a less than impressive first act, Strauss's music offered some sense of hope, 'utopian' in a sense Ernst Bloch might have understood, against this terrible backdrop. Whether the hope were vain or even irresponsible remained unanswered, at least explicitly. Yet just as surely as music always wins out against the words - witness the glory of the closing music as against the banality of the Major-Domo's announcement that supper is served - so here did art, the entirety of its enterprise, including music, words, and theatre, against its surrounding evil. This was not to speak of an unequivocal victory, which would be illusory and would therefore ultimately prove to be nothing more than capitulation to the horrors of fascism: monopoly capitalism's emergency strategy. Yet the music of the final scene, some of the most heartrending Strauss ever wrote - for here, as in Metamorphosen, and a few other works, the mask does seem to drop to reveal the real human being - becomes all the more moving when it confronts rather than retreats from evil.

This production understood that dialectical truth only too well - unlike a woman whom I heard leaving the theatre asking 'How was the opera supposed to be connected to National Socialism?' She exhibited either extraordinary stupidity or outrageous disingenuousness, but was not, I suspect, untypical of the largely bourgeois audience that would have wished only to be 'entertained'. Thankfully, the artists involved worked together to honour La Roche's pledge to 'serve the eternal requirements of the theatre,' to grant it 'neue Gesetze - neuen Inhalt!', in the search for the 'genialischen Werke unserer Zeit'. Michael Eder's performance of La Roche's great justification of the theatre was impressively handled, as were all of the varied contributions to the difficult second act, full of virtuoso ensemble writing. For whilst few of the vocal performances, individually taken, would sear themselves onto one's memory, there was a true, heartening sense of collective effort, of a fine company.

At the very heart of this, of course, stood the orchestra, which played finely throughout, and justly proved itself the most important 'character' of all. Markus Stenz conjured an echt-Straussian glow from the strings, nobility from the brass, and wonderfully piquant contributions from the woodwind, never more so than in the Rosenkavalier-recollections of the final scene (another layer of ironic memory). The clarity, propulsion, and overall coherence of the ensembles, not least the celebrated octet, reminded us that Così fan tutte was Strauss's favourite Mozart opera, and heightened the pervading sense of elegy. Edinburgh and Cologne served Strauss well, which is to say truthfully and without evasion.