(originally published as a programme essay for Royal Opera concert performances of Capriccio in July 2013)
|San Francisco Opera production of Capriccio:|
Simon Keenlyside (Flamand), Kiri Te Kanawa (Countess)
As the Capriccio Prelude opens, we enter musically and historically into a mordent-ornamented and mordantly ironic conversation. It is both playful and played at higher stakes than Strauss might previously have imagined; it seems to be a conversation that has been in progress for some time prior to our eavesdropping. What might we have heard, had we tuned in earlier? We both want and do not want to know, like the Countess Madeleine herself with her impossible choice between words and music; and the impossible choices Strauss, and we, must face.
|Baldur von Schirach|
Who among the younger generation can really imagine a great city like Munich in total darkness, or theatre-goers picking their way through the blacked-out street with the aid of small torches giving off a dim blue light through a narrow slit? All this for the experience of the Capriccio première. They risked being caught in a heavy air raid, yet their yearning to hear Strauss’s music, their desire to be part of a festive occasion and to experience a world of beauty beyond the dangers of war led them to overcome all these material problems... Afterwards it was difficult to relinquish the liberating and uniting atmosphere created by the artistic quality of the new work. But outside the blackened city waited, and one’s way homewards was fraught with potential danger.
|Munich, May 1945|
There may also be an echo of Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina, itself a defence of aristocratic culture, albeit during World War I rather than World War II, the first performance taking place in Munich in 1917. In a stroke of irony (perhaps someone should write an opera about this!) Pfitzner would be interned opposite Strauss’s Garmisch villa in 1945. A presentiment closer to home might be the attack in Strauss’s 1901 second opera, Feuersnot by Kunrad upon the Wagnerphilister of Munich. If only, then, Strauss had not joined the party he had once excoriated by signing, alongside Pfitzner, Hans Knappertsbusch, and several others, the 1933 protest by the ‘Richard Wagner City Munich’ against ‘Mr Thomas Mann’, the ‘national restoration of Germany … [having] taken on definite form’. There was nothing necessarily ‘National Socialist’ about the protest; indeed, it had more in common with a far more conservative form of nationalism. Its defensive, philistine attitude towards Mann’s brilliant, provocative portrayal of Wagner as a ‘cultural Bolshevist’, and its acknowledgement of Hitler’s movement as national saviour nevertheless did none of the signatories any credit.
The outside world will not cease intruding. Schirach was not the most favoured of the Nazi establishment by this time, his criticism of conditions attending deportation of the Jews having annoyed the high command. Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler would in turn find occasion, even at this point when they might have had more pressing concerns, to visit petty humiliations upon Strauss, ensuring that he receive no public honour. Strauss’s conduct was not that of a moral beacon; still less so was Schirach’s. Yet that does not equate them with Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler. Strauss’s accommodationism, ‘real’ yet not without limits, was owed partly to his need to safeguard his grandsons, Richard and Christian, and somehow it all sounds very much more ‘real’ when one names them. Wort oder Ton – ‘words or music?’ – is far from the only question Capriccio asks us.