Capriccio – Conversation Piece, to a libretto by Clemens Krauss and the composer [Sung in German with English surtitles]

Countess Madeleine – Katherine Broderick
Clairon – Chloé De Backer
Flamand – Bragi Bergthórsson
Olivier – Philip Spendley
Count – Nicholas Merryweather
La Roche – Philip Gerrard
Italian Soprano – Mlada Smalakyte
Italian Tenor – Tyler Clarke
Monsieur Taupe – Amar Muchhala
Major-Domo – Ritz de Ridder
Eight servants – Robert Conagahan, Thomas Hereford, Nicholas Morris, Carlos Nogueira, Nikolaos Painezis, Tobias Scholz, Matthew Sprange & Derek Welton
Young dancer – Nicholette Moone

Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Clive Timms

Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Jamie Vartan – Designer
Colin Grenfell – Lighting
Mandy Demetriou – Choreography

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 6 June, 2007
Venue: Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

A commanding Richard StraussRichard Strauss’s valedictory “conversation piece for music” with its debate on the relative importance of words and music in opera is a piece that works best in intimate venues. It does not require the largest of orchestras and the closer the audience to the protagonists and the more naturalistic the cast can be in this very wordy piece the better. In that respect it is a good choice for this theatre. However, it is a piece that has always thrived in the opera house when cast with experienced singing actors – best of all when these singers have much Lieder experience too. So it’s a brave undertaking for a cast of young singers. Overall this adventurous piece of programming paid off handsomely.

The orchestra was in fine fettle under Clive Timms’s energetic baton – he really kept the piece moving along and avoided any sense of overindulgent wallowing that sometimes besets Strauss. The string-playing in the orchestral prelude was extremely fine and the playing of the solo cello in the more agitated moments absolutely spot on. Elsewhere there were some noticeably sprightly woodwind interjections and the accompaniment of the hugely complex vocal octet in the second half was certainly full-blooded and exciting. The horns enjoyed but did not over-romanticise the ‘Moonlight Interlude’. Mention should also be made of the dancing-music contributions of both on-stage musicians, and the ethereal-sounding off-stage sextet.

Aided by Timms’s tempos the cast managed to project the text really well, and to all sing as naturally and conversationally as the composer surely intended. All did so idiomatically in the original language. The men managed this more effectively than the ladies, but I suspect that is something to do with the writing of their parts. As Countess Madeleine’s two suitors Bragi Bergthórsson and Philip Spendley gave very assured performances; the former’s tenor ideally ardent for the composer Flamand and the latter suitably dark-toned and subdued as the poet Olivier. Their characterisations were well managed too. Flamand here was jovial and genial but impassioned when defending music (intriguing that Strauss gave a tenor the part of the composer, when he was generally not complimentary about the voice!), whilst Olivier was rather more cynical, bitter and volatile. There was a satisfying interplay between them.

As the rather more shallow Count, good-naturedly interested in all the women and the actress Clairon in particular, Nicholas Merryweather gave a fine account of the role – revelling in the passages where he gently pokes fun at opera as an art-form – in passages where Strauss cheekily sets the words to the one of the most romantic themes of the piece.

At this performance Philip Gerrard really impressed in his assumption of the ebullient impresario La Roche, Strauss’s operatic tribute to the director Max Reinhart. He sang this difficult role in a suitably gravely bass and made much of the self-importance of the character as well. This role is frequently given to basses slightly past their prime and Gerrard succeeded in bringing this ‘older’ character vividly to light. His long scena at the end of the ‘argument octet’ was very deftly sung and would have got the usual ovation had not the conductor already been moving things on. Gerrard sings the role in all performances.

The ladies have a harder time of it for different reasons. The role of Clairon caused casting difficulties before the work’s premiere as much of the vocal line lies at an uncomfortably low tessitura (for the premiere Strauss hastily composed a soprano version for the Hildegard Ranczak). It is also a difficult part to act as the character is a ‘great actress’ and so one needs to be theatrical without overdoing it. Chloé De Backer certainly looked the part but perhaps was a little stagy in her acting at times. Her initial entrance did not make quite the impact it should because she sounded a little tentative vocally in the lower reaches of the part.

As the soprano who has been making something of a splash recently by winning the Guildhall’s Gold Medal and the Kathleen Ferrier Award there were high expectations of Katherine Broderick’s Madeleine. She certainly has an impressive and expressive voice, although it seemed that she occasionally lacks that soaring quality that the best interpreters of this role and other Strauss soprano parts need. This may have been in part due to Timms’s speeds; he perhaps could have relaxed a little more in some sections of the score and really allowed the singer to float some of the high lines more effectively. She acted the part nicely – I liked the interplay with Merryweather’s Count – although as the final arbiter of the words and music debate she was less light-hearted than most Countesses.

The smaller roles were all were taken. The eight waiters were a nicely differentiated team, and if the Italian singers did not manage to resist the temptation to overplay their ‘scene’ it did not detract.

Mention should be made of the simple but effective production, which also had some attractive visual touches. I particularly liked the fact that La Roche’s small model theatre, in which he demonstrated his plans for the Countess’s birthday spectacular to the other protagonists, was turned round just before the ‘Moonlight Interlude’ to reveal the set we were looking at in miniature – complete with its own lighting that mirrored what we saw on the big stage. Also clever was the gradual revelation of the main stage setting during the ‘Prelude’. There was just the right blend of artifice in the staging and direction, and the comedy was nicely judged. For some the reappearance of one of the ballerinas to mirror Countess Madeleine in her final scene may be distracting and perhaps the final revelation of the other characters in the final moments was one fancy too many – but that is being hypercritical. It’s a very diverting evening.

  • Further performances on June 8, 11 & 13
  • Tickets from Barbican Box Office – 0845 120 7500
  • Guildhall School
  • The performances on the 8 and 13 have some alternative casting

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