Sophie's wonder at the other-worldly Persian attar in Octavian's silver rose was mine on a very special occasion three days ago. I couldn't put up my most burning emotion about it then, but now that I've reviewed the first Royal Opera concert performance of Richard Strauss's Capriccio over on The Arts Desk, I think it may be safely released into the e-ther. It still wouldn't be fair or honourable to write about the unique final-rehearsal experience in any kind of detail or critical nuance. But I hope I'm allowed, as the sole and hence very honoured guest of a distinguished cast member, to shout to the world the final impression of a performance under circumstances I'll remember to my dying day.
I may have - who hasn't? - blown hot and cold about the Renée Fleming phenomenon. Remember how the previous joint holder along with Margaret Price of the Beautiful Voice award, Kiri te Kanawa, could be engaged or on auto-pilot? Fleming's split is to be either naturalness itself, with soaring Straussian soprano instrument to command, or a little arch and vocally curdled. For the gift of Capriccio, though, may all her small sins be forgiven.
The final rehearsal in question took place to myself and about 15 others luxuriously dotted around the Royal Opera stalls. Most singers were casually dressed, which was absolutely fine; Renée, however, gave us not only a dress and wrap to die for - my programme now tells me it was a 'Vivienne Westwood metallic floorlength Couture corset gown in sequins, with a silver and gold rose jacquard coat' (pictured above and below on Friday night by Catherine Ashmore) - but also absolutely no stinting on the performance at any point. Nor did anyone else hold back, for that matter, but the prima donna really is the one in the spotlight for the last 20 minutes.
That's a great diva as well as a dedicated professional and a canny businesswoman for you. And it meant that the final scene - to hell with whether we care about Countess Madeleine's sticky dilemma, the wonder of music solves every problem - soared and transported us as I've never heard it before in the opera house, which includes fabulous performances by Felicity Lott, Kiri and a singer I've always thought hugely underrated, the charming Margaret Marshall.
For more on the other singers, go over to the TAD review (I might add that newcomers Andrew Staples as composer Flamand and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as classy actress Clairon had added immeasurably to their new acquaintance with their roles by the first public performance). But just imagine it: the great Strauss experience as if presented in the Countess's salon for the select few. Did I feel like one of the luckiest people on the planet for hours after. Still do.
We've spent four sessions on the last Strauss stage masterpiece, a love-letter to a life in the operatic theatre, in the City Lit Opera in Focus class. The dilemma here was with whom to end - Renée in Robert Carsen's gorgeous if sharp-edged Palais Garnier production (illustrated up top and in its latest DVD format), or Kiri in Chicago. Early comparisons had quickly revealed that Carsen's vision was wittier and lighter in every respect than Stephen Lawless's on a too-big stage, and we stayed with it for most of the DVD sequences. It moves, moreover, from playfulness to great emotional weight towards the events of the late afternoon in the pre-revolutionary (for which read here occupied Paris) salon, so that tears were to be shed for Franz Hawlata's magnificently acted impresario La Roche long before the transcendent final glory.
Not all the students liked the opera's reference-studded debate, but the ones who didn't were predictably won over by the end. For the conversation-piece centre, despite Hotter and Gedda clamouring for attention on the old Sawallisch recording, I kept returning again and again to Karl Böhm with Schreier as composer and Prey as poet, Janowitz and Fischer-Dieskau as aristocratic sister and brother, the peerless Troyanos as actress Clairon - oh, listen to those endless phrases of hers - and Karl Ridderbusch a magnificent La Roche (Nazi, sadly, but che artista, which will do if only for the duration of the recording). How well I remember its original LP boxed-set cover, such a poetic incarnation of the music/words issue.
Enough for now, but it might be worth recording the sources we traced.
For the discusssion between Olivier, Flamand and La Roche bringing Gluck into the argument, the Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide, amazingly available in a 1928 recording using Wagner's concert ending with Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra .
Still not found any precise tracing of the Piccinni opera buffa references, two of them, very jolly: anyone out there able to help?
The Countess cites a bit of Couperin which sounds like 'Le tic-tic choc' in Strauss's Divertimento arrangement, and of Rameau's 'Fra le pupille di vaghe belle', an afterthought, I believe, to Les Indes galantes; Carolyn Sampson has made a rather helium-y recording of it.
Much more obvious, to me at any rate, are Strauss's self-quotations after La Roche's aria (where I've just pinned down an elusive reference from Schubert's 'An die Musik'): the ranz des vaches farewell music in both Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, obvious bits of Ariadne auf Naxos and Daphne (bizarrely, that passage is cut from the Royal Opera performance). The masks and Sancho Panza turn up in the delightful little servants' scene.
Finally, if anyone cares, who's to be the Countess's choice, 'words' Olivier or 'music' Flamand, or inseparable both? I'd say the argument is always firmly weighted in the composer's favour, and of course his is the last music Strauss quotes. I managed to sneak that point in my Strauss-operas article in the Covent Garden programme for the two concert performances. Don't miss the second tomorrow if you can get a ticket (there seemed to be a few available at both ends of the price range on the Royal Opera website, despite rumoured sold-out status).
Last musical notes here should belong to a recording I didn't know existed, and which doesn't appear on my 8 CDs of Strauss conducting. The YouTube clip is ascribed to him, and is a performance of the Moonlight Music (originally the piano interlude and postlude in the satirical anti-publishers song-cycle Krämerspiegel) before the Countess's final scene. Habe dank, Meister.