So, continuing my Robert Carsen binge in an especially appropriate manner considering last night’s Iphigénie shindig, I bring you the DVD of Carsen’s 2004 Paris production of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio. This may be even more incoherent than usual as I am reeling a bit, in a good way, from this production.
I have my own theories about this work. It’s Strauss’ last opera and it premiered 22 days before the tanks of 5th Guards Tank Army ripped through the axis lines west of Stalingrad opening the battle that would hand Germany the defeat which marked the turning point of the war. I think I see it as a sort of elegy for a world that Strauss sees as passing away. Does Strauss sense Germany’s defeat? Will there even be opera in Germany post the Apocalypse. In such a world isn’t the core question of the opera “words or music?” an irrelevant luxury? Does Carsen share this interpretation? I don’t know for sure but he chooses to set this production in Munich at the time of the premiere rather in 1775 as the libretto clearly states. It makes some of the discussion about Gluck and Reform Opera a bit odd but I can live with that if it draws attention to bigger questions. In any event the period decision seems minor compared with the daringness of Carsen’s overall concept.
Capriccio is an opera about opera in general and about itself in particular. Carsen takes this idea and builds on it. He uses the idea of “theatre within a theatre” but in a way that is far removed from the boring “plonk a toy theatre down centre stage” that New York seems to think is avant-garde. Carsen uses the depth of the Palais Garnier stage, multiple proscenium arches, mirrors, stage boxes and, occasionally, crudely visible scenery to create a series of ambiguous spaces. It’s less “theatre within a theatre” than “Klein bottle within a Klein bottle”. The ambiguity comes to a head in the final scene where Olivier, Flamand and La Roche are in an orchestra box stage right with the Graf and Gräfin in a box stage left watching the Gräfin sing the great final scene in which she fails to decide between “words” and “music”. Is the Gräfin in the box a double or was that bit put in for the DVD? I don’t know. Then right at the end Carsen pulls an extraordinary coup de theatre which it would be spoilerish to reveal. I totally understand the hooting and hollering from the audience. It’s stunning.
Performances are all very good to excellent. Renée Fleming is the Gräfin and if you have seen her sing Strauss you know what to expect. I thought that in the big final scene she was more obviously emotional and conflicted than in the two Met performances of this scene that I’ve seen. I think it’s a better approach. When directors get Renée to act rather than look decorative and goofy it’s a big plus. Anne Sofie von Otter (the secret ingredient?) is a wonderful Clairon. She’s dressed to kill in red and black and vamps it up like Marlene Dietrich. The excellent Franz Hawalta manages to be funny as La Roche without becoming buffoonish and he sings very musically and steadily. The chemistry between Gerald Finley as Olivier and Rainer Trost as Flamand is excellent and they are both lovely singers in top form here. There really aren’t any weak links. I don’t think the score is one of Strauss’ best but Ulf Schirmer in the pit makes it sound pretty good.
Direction for DVD is by François Roussillon. It’s harder than usual to judge the DVD direction. It’s really hard to tell what the audience in the theatre saw versus what we are getting on the DVD but it would have been really hard to convey the picture from the audience given the way Carsen was using space. I think Roussillon has deliberately chosen ambiguity here which is of a piece, philosophically if not literally, with the staging. I’d love to see what this production looked like in the theatre but I can accept the DVD as a fascinating document in its own right. Technically it’s excellent. The 16:9 Anamorphic picture is gorgeous which is helped by 148 minutes of video being spread across two disks. Sound options are LPCM stereo, Dolby 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The DTS track seemed crisper to me and was very satisfactory though maybe a touch light on the bass. English, German, French, Italian and Spanish subtitles. There are no extras which is annoying. These Carsen productions need/deserve a director interview. The documentation in my library copy was missing unfortunately so no insights from that either.