Capriccio, Opera by R. Strauss
In Capriccio, his last opera, Richard Strauss returned to a debate that has beset opera since its very beginnings. What is more important, the words or the music? Strauss’ final masterpiece is an allegory in which the characters attempt to resolve the question.
A group of writers, performers and an impresario have gathered at the house of Madeleine, a countess, to celebrate her birthday. Discussion quickly follows over what matters most in the arts. A poet and a composer, Olivier and Flamand, represent each side of the argument. They are also Madeleine’s suitors.
When Flamand sings one of Olivier’s love sonnets, the countess declares that its poetry and music are inseparable. Yet if she is to select a husband, she must decide in favour of one over the other. The entertainment originally planned is abandoned. Olivier and Flamand will write an opera for which Madeleine will determine the ending.
Premiered at the Nationaltheater München on 28 October 1942, the subject of Capriccio is a serious one, but it is not without its funny moments. The scenes that deride the pomposity of La Roche, the theatre director, and Monsieur Taupe, the prompter, who think themselves the most important people on the stage, clearly show that Strauss had a comedic touch.
As those who come to enjoy Capriccio at the Vienna State Opera will find out, where Strauss excelled in this wonderful work is the way in which he expressed its central dilemma, particularly in its final aria, “Morgen mittag um elf!”. Sung by Madeleine, it is she who must find the answer to the opera’s central question. But there is none: in the arts, words and music are equally important; when it comes to the men in her life, she can only choose one of them. A delight throughout, it is here in Capriccio that Strauss truly shows his brilliance as the intensity of the music ebbs and flows to the point that the audience feels Madeleine’s dilemma as keenly as she does.