Thursday, July 07, 2011

Thoughts on OA's Capriccio


I have had a day to cogitate, and to recover the lack of sleep, so now it must be time to start thinking/talking about Capriccio.

Ok, first things first. This is not the sort of opera you go to for beautiful sweeping melodies and glorious arias. Yes, there are some truly fabulous solo passages, but they are not really arias, in the way that say Verdi wrote arias, much less say Mozart. That is not to say there are no beautiful parts, but most of them are ensembles. There was some truly beautiful moments in this opera, but most of them are just that, moments, that reach that point, then move on to something else.

Next, I also have to say, I am not a fan of Richard Strauss operas. Sure, I can admire the genius of the writing, and he clearly loved the art form, but really? I rarely find him moving. I am happy to admit, that is probably more to do with me than Strauss. I always find him a bit like a Wagner, without Wagner's ability to pull a great melody out of nowhere, or to effortlessly take you to an unexpected place musically and make it work. To my ear, Strauss often seems to be journeyman to Wagner's master. Not bad per se, just failing to reach the visceral emotional response that a good Wagner performance will bring out. Then again, maybe that is precisely the point. Strauss's operas could just be too detached and academic for me, while Wagner, for all his musical innovation, still reached out and grabs you, demanding your heart, not just your mind. Well, that is how it works for me.

Also, this has to be said. I have never come across such a meta opera before. Deciding towards the end to sit down and write an opera about the events we have just watched on stage? Any literature theorist would have a field day!

Yet, having said all that, I have made this opera sound like a pretentious piece of intellectual snobbery, which it definitely isn't. To be sure, both Strauss and Clemmens Krauss the librettist, are playing intellectual games in this piece all the time. But, at the same time, they do invite us to join in the fun. An opera about ideas, but at the same time, ideas that only matter to a select few seems dull. But it is anything but.

This is, I have to admit, a hilarious opera, well served, with a hilarious staging. The laughs come thick and fast throughout the opera. Sure, many of them are in jokes, but far more of them work whether or not you know opera. The actress rolling her eyes (Clairon, played by Tania Ferris in a delectable piece of acting) on realising she is dealing with an amateur with no idea of acting other than going over the top with everything. The Italian singers who were clearly sending up numerous famous singers (Pavarotti for one) with their ridiculous flamboyance, and then drunkenness. And the Impressario, who wanted to make everything into a giant spectacle, yet longed to leave his mark on his art.

But, what about the singing, did I hear you say? Well, first off, let me congratulate Conal Coad as La Roche. Is there a better comic bass in Australia? I cannot think of one. He took this role and owned it. His powerful resonant voice did not put a foot wrong, and carried off the acting demands with aplomb. He took the demanding thankless role of the curmudgeon, and made it special. Vocally, he would be the person I would go back to hear again in this opera.

The lovers? Well, to my mind, Andrew Brunsdon seemed under powered. Not that he was lost amongst the orchestra, just he seemed to be lacking in the power to make his characterisation something truly special, because, do not get me wrong, he sang beautifully with a clear ringing sound, just the role did not seem right for him. Maybe in ten years, his voice will have grown into this role, but in the theatre, I frequently found myself wishing for a bigger voice.

Michael Lewis as the poet on the other hand, sounded more like i would have expected. He had the vocal heft for the role, but somehow he seemed lacking somewhat. Why the Countess would think him an equal to the Flamand of Brunsdon I could not work out. He never really made me want him to win her hand, which for him to be believable, you needed at least some of the time. I did not get that from him, but I did get impressive singing, which I was happy with.

Clairon as I mentioned earlier was sung By Tania Ferris. In her initial scene I was underwhelmed by her voice, but she soon settled into the role and her voice opened up to reveal a mezzo of more size and expression than I expected. She brought humanity to the role, even as it was played for laughs.

As the man in love with her, Christopher Tonkin was an attractive Count. Possibly a little too knowing and not in the moment enough for me, but he was able to bring lots of laughs with his role. The fact that he sang well, and looked the handsome, layabout no good nobleman did not hurt either…

The Italian Singers as I mentioned earlier where quite hilarious. I did not mention they also sang beautifully, and were clearly having a ball as the guests that end up hanging around for longer than you want, but can't quite work out how to get rid of. And yes, they sent up a number of famous singers, and generally were a roaring success.

Now, normally, I have to admit I am not a fan of Graeme MacFarlane. To me, he was an over promoted character tenor who was never really all that. As the prompter, he seems to have found his niche. A gnome like character who was deliberately unattractive, yet ends up being all the more real for it? It certainly worked for him, and, I have never heard him sing so well either. I would never describe his voice as beautiful, but it was clear and rang out through the house, indeed, he was a model of how to make a little go a long way!!

I have left the star of the show to the end. I say star, because ultimately Capriccio is about the Countess, and her role is pivotal to everything that happens. And yet, despite the undeniable beauty of her voice, and her on stage presence, to me, Cheryl Barker has not convinced me as the Countess. For most of the opera, she seems underpowered, as if a bigger voice would suit the role better. Her voice really does not seem to bloom till the end with her long monologue. Then you get to see what her Countess could (and should) be. Which makes me wonder if it is a concern about stamina, making her hold back, rather than a lack of power to sing through that I am hearing. This would not be surprising, as it is a big role to sing, and the most demanding and most important singing is at the end of the opera.

Having said that, apart from the vocal concerns, I found hers an impressive performance. She was a convincing focus for the show, just I found myself wishing for someone with the voice of say Dame Kiri, or similar. A bigger voice, who could spin those lines and make them into pure gold for the whole show, something sadly Cheryl Barker was not able to do on the night I was there. I can only hope she will grow into this more as the season progresses.

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