“A Conversation Piece for Music” in 1 act
Composer: Richard Strauss
Libretto: Clemens Krauss and Richard Strauss
First performed: Nationaltheater München, Munich, Germany, 28 October 1942, conducted by Clemens Krauss
We continue our series on the world’s dullest operas with Strauss’s last offering, an artistic debate performed in the middle of WWII.
Uncyclopedia gives this description:
Considered by many to be Strauss’s finest stage work, this highly dramatic opera covers an afternoon in an eighteenth-century drawing room during which some rich French people drink cocoa and talk about Gluck. In the thrilling denouement, we mercifully come almost two hours closer to the Revolution, during which everyone is sure to be guillotined (see Salome), and the tension is almost unbearable as the countess, ignorant of her probable fate, looks in a mirror, wonders about something, and then has her dinner.
- DIE GRÄFIN (The Countess) (soprano)
- DER GRAF (The Count), her brother (baritone)
- FLAMAND, a musician (tenor)
- OLIVIER, a poet (baritone)
- LA ROCHE, theatre director (bass)
- The actress CLAIRON (contralto)
- MONSIEUR TAUPE (tenor)
- An Italian singer (soprano)
- An Italian tenor (tenor)
- A young dancer
- DER HAUSHOFMEISTER (The Major-Domo) (bass)
- Eight SERVANTS (four tenors, four basses)
- Three MUSICIANS
A castle near Paris, in the time when Gluck began reforming opera, sometime around 1775
Capriccio is an opera about opera, that fusion of music, text, and stagecraft – a theme Strauss handled better in Ariadne auf Naxos.
It lives up to its name of a “Conversation Piece”. Well-bred characters discuss aesthetics and philosophy for two and a half hours, in a self-indulgent, talky opera barren of plot or character development – like Thomas Love Peacock set to music.
There’s only so much one can take of “Words are better than music” or “No, music is better than words”. In this case, neither is great.
As usual, Strauss does some lovely things with the orchestra – the opening string sextet, the Mondscheinmusik – and there’s an ingenious quarrel octet, but the music is Strauss at low ebb.
Much of it is – as one of the characters complains – recitative, recitative, without any arias. We do get quotes from Gluck (the sublime overture to Iphigénie en Aulide), and pastiche Rameau and Piccinni. But it lacks the tunes to swoon to of Rosenkavalier, the drama of Salome and Elektra, or the imagination of Ariadne.
Surprisingly, it’s Strauss’s seventh most performed opera, and critically well regarded. (Others may differ.)
Why it’s done so often, and Die schweigsame Frau – a warm, funny comedy banned by the Nazis, with a fine wedding sextet, trio, and bass aria – is so obscure is one of life’s little mysteries.