Before the opera I arrived early and attended the lecture and I am glad I did. The dramaturge who spoke did an excellent job discussing a variety dimensions of this work. I found the discussion of the context of the composition to be the most interesting. It does give one pause to consider that here in the midst of this terrible war (WW2), while thousands are being killed in battle, the Jews are being rounded up and murdered in concentration camps here is Strauss composing this curious piece which debates whether the words or music are more important in art, and the setting is terribly anachronistic. The lecturer made the comment that in many ways this opera and his work for the Reich show how out of touch he was. The first performance in Munich occurred in 1942 and it was performed without an intermission so that the audience could return home in the dark before a bombing raid. And yet the performance was sold out. People must have been so desperate for a little beauty in the midst of all of the horror that they took an incredible risk to experience this work.
The work takes place in a country manor of a count (Skovus) and countess (Fleming) who are entertaining a group of artists - a composer, Flamand (Burden), a poet, Olivier (Iverson) and a stage director/impressario, LaRoche (Rose). This director is planning an extravagant birthday celebration for the countess and has brought all kinds of other artists with him, including a leading actress, Clairon (Von Otter), some dancers, singers and the prompter. The burning question is which is more important - the music or the words; which comes first - the music or the words (Prima la musica, a phrase which nods at the inspiration for the work, an opera by Salieri the title of which begins with those words). To add to the complication the composer and the poet are in love with the countess and the countess needs to decide between them. In between all of the discussion and conversation we have performances of a sextet, a trio sonata, a poem is read and then set to music, the dancers dance, the singers sing. It is all good fun. Then everyone leaves to go to Paris except the countess who remains to ponder the events of the day and how she wants it all to end - leading to her glorious final scene. Oh, and the prompter gets left behind because he keeps falling asleep!
The libretto was actually written by the conductor Clemens Kraus with help from Strauss. BUt the idea came from Stefan Zweig, who as a Jew had realized that he was not safe and took refuge in London eventually emigrating to Brazil, where tormented by the reality of the 1000's of Jews murdered in nazi death camps he took his own life. This opera, so light and frilly and beautiful and ravishing, nevertheless has this amazing dark outline, which I think needs to be always kept in mind.
The production was appropriately lavish - the sets, costumes. Strauss and Clemens had set the opera in the 1770's, but this production (which I think is the same production that has been mounted at the Met) sets the action in the 1920's. It is effective and works well, except that all of the discussion of current musical trends - Gluck, et al - is of course no longer current. But it doesn't matter. The plot, such as it is, seems to me to be incidental to the incredibly beautiful music and visual effect. It seems that with this production, at least, the winner of the debate is LaRoche with the music coming in 2nd place.
I can't end this reflection without commenting on the incredibly rude behavior of the audience. All around me, but especially in the row in front of me (row NN to be exact - I was in OO) people spent the opera talking, rustling papers, searching through their purses and using their phones for checking their messages and texting. In the process they would drop things and make loud noises. It was really unbelievable. Can't you turn that stupid thing off for a couple hours? Can't you be respectful to those around you? The worst and most obnoxiously rude behavior of the evening was how many people felt that that they had to leave before the end. So during Rene's final glorious scene, he singing was incredible, the orchestra was wonderfully beautiful, but there was a steady exit of people throughout the auditorium. And I am not talking about just a handful - I am talking about lots of people - maybe a couple hundred left. Everyone in row NN left before the end - and they left in the most noisy and obnoxious way possible. Then then would push through the doors which would shut with a bang. So, they managed to ruin that last scene for everyone else - so to you jerks this is what I have to say - next time - stay home - watch the opera on Met Player or something! If you cannot allow yourself to be transported and at least to have a modicum of respect for others around you - stay home! Oh, and BTW - these were not young people. Everyone in row NN was between the ages of 50 and 80. In fact, I didn't see any young people leave at all. All older folks who should know better. Back in the old days when I sat way up in the 3rd balcony I never experienced this - maybe it is all the wealthy, older folks who feel entitled who act like neanderthals - I don't know. But I have never experienced anything quite like it before.
Even so, it was a magical evening at the opera. Hats off to the wonderful people at Lyric Opera for all of the great hard work they do.
Publicity picture from Lyric of Rene in the last scene of "Capriccio."