11 June 2013 at 4.27pm | Comment on this article
The final solo scene of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio opens dramatically. Countess Madeleine cries ‘Morgen mittags um elf!’ (Tomorrow morning at eleven!), followed by a flurry of agitation in the orchestra. The Countess wryly remarks ‘This is the hand of Fate!’ and at once the music becomes calmer. But a sense of restlessness remains and the orchestra comments on the Countess’s shifting emotions as she questions herself – one moment stormy, the next gentle.
Why is the Countess so disquieted? So far in the opera she has generally seemed calm and composed, successfully juggling the attentions of her two suitors – the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier – and kept the peace between them, her stagestruck brother, the actress Clairon and the grandiose director La Roche. But now she is at an impasse. Flamand and Olivier have been challenged to write an opera about the Countess and her guests. The next morning the Countess will have to choose the opera’s ending – in other words, to decide whether she will select the poet or the composer as her lover.
The Countess sings a sonnet first heard early in the opera: text by Olivier, music by Flamand. The sweeping lyrical melody, supported by rich string textures and rippling harp chords, highlights the beauty of the soprano voice. The mood is serene, but then shifts to minor harmonies on the words ‘life or death’. To more melancholy music, the Countess reflects ‘it is futile to try and separate them. Words and music are fused into one’. The music grows warmer and more ardent as she describes the magic of this fusion.
The Countess realizes that it is nearly impossible for her to choose between the poet and the composer. But she must make a choice, and asks herself question after question, increasingly declamatory and her line rising ever higher. The music reaches the heights of intensity as the Countess gazes at her reflection and exclaims ‘You wanted to make a pact with love, but now you yourself are on fire and you cannot save yourself!’. For a moment her mood lightens and, accompanied by a teasing oboe melody, she addresses her reflection: ‘You look back with a touch of irony?’ But almost immediately, her passion flares up as she asks, to full orchestral accompaniment: ‘Do you want to burn between two fires?’.
However, Capriccio is not a tragic opera, and the Countess gradually regains her composure. As she gazes silently at her reflection, we hear a dreamy melody in the strings, accompanied by a lulling figuration in the woodwind. Finally, to shimmering string chords, the Countess gently asks her reflection, ‘Can you help me to find the ending?’ With a trace of humour, she sings her final line, very quietly: ‘Is there one [ending] that isn’t trivial?’ A delicate postlude combining the dreamy string melody with themes earlier associated with Olivier and Flamand, and closing with fragments of melody for solo horn and pizzicato string chords, ends the scene and the opera.
Strauss loved the soprano voice, and wrote many beautiful scenes for soprano. This exquisite depiction of a woman in love – with poetry, music and two very different men – was a fitting conclusion to his marvellous operatic career.
Capriccio in concert will be staged on 19 and 21 July. Tickets are sold out though returns may become available.
The performance is staged with the generous philanthropic support of the Metherell family.