Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Classics chronicles: Music vs. words -- in "Capriccio," the Countess makes her choice

Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess sings Flamand's setting of Olivier's sonnet in the Final Scene of Richard Strauss's Capriccio in San Francisco, with Donald Runnicles conducting, in 1993.

by Ken

As I mentioned Friday night, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the Countess of the 1960 Vienna performance of Capriccio we've been sampling, first recorded the opera's Final Scene in 1953 for an EMI LP that also included her first recording of Strauss's Four Last Songs. In 1957-58 she sang the role in EMI's premiere commercial recording of the opera, conducted by the young Wolfgang Sawallisch. Here's the 1953 recording.

R. STRAUSS: Capriccio, Op. 85: Final Scene: Countess, "Morgen Mittag um elf" ("Tomorrow morning at 11")
We'll have full texts later. This synopsis comes from Pacifica Opera Victoria's Capriccio study guide.

It is evening and the moon has risen. The Countess enters. The major-domo tells her that Olivier will meet her to discuss the ending of the opera -- the next morning at eleven, in the library. She is alarmed, realizing that Flamand will be disappointed to find Olivier in the library instead of her.

And as for me, she wonders, I’m supposed to determine the opera's ending ... Is it the words that move my heart or the music that speaks more strongly?

She sings the sonnet, interrupting herself partway through: It's fruitless to try to separate them. Words and music are fused into one ... One art redeemed by the other!

Regarding herself in a mirror, she asks herself what to do. In choosing the one, you will lose the other. Doesn't one always lose when one wins?

Again she asks the Madeleine in the mirror, Do you want to be consumed between two fires? You mirrored image of Madeleine in love -- can you advise me, can you help me find the ending, the ending for their opera? Is there one that is not trivial?

The major-domo announces that supper is served; Madeleine smiles at the mirror and walks into the dining room, humming the sonnet.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (s), Countess Madeleine; Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Ackermann, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 26, 1953


First we should listen once more to Flamand singing his setting of Olivier's sonnet, but before we do that I guess we need to get up to speed on the opera's basic premise.

There's a fairly useful booklet prepared for Pacific Opera Victoria's production of Capriccio available as a PDF, which begins by explaining: "Strauss originally set Capriccio in a luxurious chateau near Paris at the time when Gluck began his reform of opera, about 1775. Marie Antoinette had just become Queen of France; the French Revolution was yet to come." The luxurious chateau is the home of the Count and Countess, brother and sister, which in the course of the opera is also temporary home to an assortment of guests (including a theatrical troupe preparing a production). Perhaps most important among the guests are two prime suitors of the Countess: the musician Flamand (tenor) and the poet Olivier (baritone).

It's through these characters' pursuit of the attentions of the lovely Countess that Krauss and Strauss will work out the central concern of the "conversation piece for music:" Which is more important in vocal music, the music or the words? As samples of their art, we are given Olivier's sonnet, and Flamand's musical setting of it (which Olivier, on hearing it, declares a travesty).

There are incidental pleasures for me along the way. In the right kind of performance, I can enjoy the somewhat cleverly drawn theater impresario La Roche.  (In any of the wrong kinds of performance, though, he can be an intolerable bore.) Perhaps best of all is the strangely molelike Monsieur Taupe, who near the end of the opera awakens from deep slumber to find the once-bustling chateau now apparently deserted. I recall a concert performance of Capriccio in which the chief pleasure was the performance of the veteran character tenor Hugues Cuenod (who must have been pushing 100) as Monsieur Taupe.

But as samples of why either we or the Countess should give a damn about either Flamand or Olivier as a potential real-life companion, we're given close to nothing. At the same time, the Countess herself is a barely two-dimensional creation. Plotwise, she has been importuned to make a choice, which will serves as the ending for the play Olivier is writing. I'll bet you can hardly wait to find out how it turns out.

We heard several performances of the musicalized sonnet by the composer in Friday night's post. For reasons that I think will become obvious when we listen again to the Final Scene, we need to hear the sonnet again, and this the best performance of it I've heard, and as with most everything in this SWR broadcast performance -- including the Countess of Felicity Lott -- is the most nearly persuasive performance of Capriccio I've heard, meaning the closest I've been able to come to giving a damn about any of these people.

R. STRAUSS: Capriccio, Op. 85: Flamand, "Kein andres, das mir so im Herzen loht" ("Nothing else flames so in my heart")
This translation, again, is Maria Massey's rhyming-verse rendering. We have the more literal translation nestled in the Countess's final monologue below.

Your image in my ardent bosom glows,
enthroned there to keep my heart on fire.
Where you reside, there dwells my sole desire.
In vain would Venus beckon if she chose.

What joy, what pain your gentle eye bestows;
indeed, one gaze can wild despair inspire --
the next restore my fondest hope entire;
your glances deal me life -- or mortal blows.

Were yet my days prolonged beyond all measure,
no other being's favor would I treasure,
no other passion can compel my heart.

All through the waking hours my thoughts unfold you;
all night my slumb'ring eyes in dreams behold you --
thus shall it be till from this earth I part.

Gregory Kunde (t), Flamand; Southwest German Radio (SWR) Symphony Orchestra, Georges Prêtre, cond. Forlane, broadcast performance, May 28, 1999, with supplementary sessions May 29-31

R. STRAUSS: Capriccio, Op. 85: Final Scene: Moonlight Interlude; Countess, "Wo ist mein Bruder?" ("Where is my brother?") . . . "Morgen Mittag am elf" ("Tomorrow morning at 11")

There are music lovers who go into transports over Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's vocally wispy, interpretively precious artfulness. Me, not so much, and it has always seemed to me especially unhelpful in Capriccio, where we -- or at least I -- so desperately need to get the sense of a human being in action. That said, I was surprised to find myself rather enjoying this performance with Karl Böhm. In the Decca recording Kiri Te Kanawa provides a straightforwardly lovely accounting of the character, but as I indicated above, the singer who brings me closesst to caring about the Countess is Felicity Lott in this performance with Georges Prêtre.

Among a number of other interesting performances I might have included, there's an EMI recording of the Final Scene by Elisabeth Söderström which I have only on LP, thereby busting the ground rules for this post. I actually did mean to include the recording of the scene by Julia Varady from her Orfeo Strauss CD conducted by husband Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who sang Olivier in that 1957-58 EMI premiere recording of Capriccio), but then I set the CD down . . . somewhere. (We heard the "Moonlight Interlude" from that recording in the February 2010 "Strauss's depths" post.)
Moonlight Music

The stage remains empty for a long time. The salon lies in darkness. Moonlight on the terrace. The COUNTESS enters in full evening attire, and exits onto the terrace. Orchestral interlude. After some time the MAJOR-DOMO enters and lights the candles in the salon. The salon is soon brightly illuminated.

COUNTESS: Where is my brother?
MAJOR-DOMO: His Lordship has accompanied Mademoiselle Clairon to Paris. He asks to be excused for this evening.
COUNTESS: Then I shall sup alone. An enviable nature! The fleeting attracts him. How did he say it today? "Decide blithely -- possess carefree. Happiness of the moment -- wisdom of life." Ah, how simple! [To the Major-Domo] What else?
MAJOR-DOMO: Monsieur Olivier wishes to pay a visit in the morning to learn from Her Ladyship the ending of the opera.
COUNTESS: The ending of the opera? When will he come?
MAJOR-DOMO: He will wait in the library?
COUNTESS: In the library? When?
MAJOR-DOMO: Tomorrow morning at 11.
[Bows and exits]
COUNTESS: Tomorrow morning at 11! That's terrible. Since the sonnet they've become inseparable. Flamand will be quite disappointed when he finds Monsieur Olivier and not me in the library. And I? I'm to tell them the opera's ending, to choose, decide? Do the words move my heart, or is it the music that carries more power?
[She takes up the copy of the sonnet, and accompanies herself on the harp while singing it.]
Nothing else flames so in my heart,
no, Lady, nothing is there on earth’s whole face,
nothing else that I could sigh for as for you,
in vain would Venus herself come down to grant my will.

What joy, what pain your gentle eye bestows;
and if a glance should heighten all that pain...
the next restore my fondest hope and bliss entire;
two glances signify then life... or death.
Useless to try separating them. Blended together are words and music in some new fusion. Mysterious experience -- one art redeemed by the other!
And, though I lived five hundred thousand years,
save you, miraculous fair, there could not be
another creature hold sway over me.

Through fresh veins I must needs let flow my blood;
my own with you are filled to overflowing
and new love then could find not room nor pause.
Their love enfolds me, tenderly woven of verses and sounds. Must I tear the fabric? Am am I not myself woven into it? To choose but one? Flamand, the noble spirit with the lovely eyes? Olivier, the strong and impassioned man?
[She looks in the mirror.]
Now, dear Madeleine, what says your heart? You are loved but cannot give in return. It was sweet to be weak. You tried to make a pact with love, and now you're on fire and cannot find refuge! In choosing one you must lose the other! Don't we also lose when we win?
[To the miror]
You look back somewhat ironically? I want an answer, and not your questioning look! Still silent? O Madeleine, Madeleine! Will you burn between two fires? You image of a lovelorn Madeleine, can you advise me, can you help me to find an ending, an ending for our opera? Is there one that isn't trivial?
MAJOR-DOMO [enters, remains standing at the door]: Your Ladyship, your supper is served.
[The COUNTESS, looking smilingly in the mirror, waves coquettishly with her fan at her reflection, which she gracefully bids farewell with a deep curtsy. Then, in the highest spirits and humming the melody of the sonnet, she walks slowly past the MAJOR-DOMO into the dining room. The MAJOR-DOMO, amazed at her behavior, watches her with a look of astonishment, then looks back into the mirror.]

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (s), Countess Madeleine; Alois Pernerstorfer (bs-b), Major-Domo; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, May 15, 1960

Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Countess Madeleine; Gottfried Hornik (b), Major-Domo; Vienna Philharmonic, Ulf Schirmer, cond. Decca, recorded December 1993

Felicity Lott (s), Countess Madeleine; Markus Eiche (bs), Major-Domo; Southwest German Radio (SWR) Symphony Orchestra, Georges Prêtre, cond. Forlane, broadcast performance, May 28, 1999, with supplementary sessions May 29-31

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