The cast of Capriccio | Opera Theatre

Capriccio was Richard Strauss’ last opera. The final curtain. It holds, perhaps, some extra piquancy for that fact, but needs it not. Oh sure, it goes on a bit. Having made its points, it tends to labour them. But it begins in such an intimate, romantic way (sounding more like a chamber opera), surely it can’t fail to charm and seduce even the most hardened heart.

As with the plots of numerous operas, it strains credibility, narratively (two men fall for one woman, which will she choose?), but who cares? For this work has loftier concerns, as it embarks on a philosophical, if bourgeois debate as to which of the arts is the nobler. Indeed, Strauss (or his librettist, the conductor, Clemens Krauss) subtitled this three-hour opus “a conversation piece for music”. And not so very long ago: it premiered at the Nationaltheater, Munchen, October 28, 1942. The timing raises interesting questions. Some say ‘jawohl!’; others, ‘nein!’ The lines between resistance, collaboration and passivity are as indistinct, in his case, as for many other artists working within the Third Reich.

But this in itself can be an excuse. It’s so much more relaxed and comfortable to ignore the question, as much as it burns. And it probably has nothing to do with the merit of the work. For the record, to satiate those who, like myself, can’t seem to suppress the political, it seems Strauss most likely fell into the passive school, accommodating the regime as best he could and only dissenting if it was of personal consequence. For many observers, this will be a crime in itself.

But the opera is no crime. It’s not a triumph, either. The last third or so seems repetitive and to contain countless missed opportunities for a resolution. But the first half is near sublime. It has wit, opulence, a Teutonic version of tenderness and is as musical, to my ears, as any opera, allowing, as it does, ample room for the voices to take flight. Perhaps took at least some of the debate apparent in the opera about orchestration, words and music, which is prima, and which dopo, to heart.

John Cox has realised Strauss’ vision impeccably, with among the best casting I’ve yet seen from Opera Australia or any other company. (Nor should we discount the contribution of associate director, Roger Press.) Similarly, Nicholas Braithwaite wields his baton such that the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra again surpasses itself, with Strauss’ superb score emerging as warm, sweet and comforting as freshly-baked strudel.

Designer John Stoddart has faithfully and redolently embodied the glamour of the roaring ’20s, a more palatable era in which to set the action than that in which the opera was written, even if one can’t help but intuit some glimpses of the particular kind of decadence, debauchery and depravity more readily associated with the latter. So far, so, so good. And it continues in that vein. Cheryl Barker as The Countess, Madeleine, living in a fool’s paradise, with nothing better to do than to muse, at length, over the contest between two suitors. But then there’s the subtext, which sees her, and all else, struggling with the primacy of words, versus music. And which of the arts reigns supreme, transcending all others? Poetry? Music? Theatre? Or, God forbid, opera?

Barker, as our lucky country, upturned horseshoe good fortune would have it, is renowned as one of the great living singers of Strauss, and that reputation is not only amply deserved but abundantly in evidence. But this isn’t a case of a bunch of good singers and a couple of good ones, anymore than it’s a case of a bunch of good actors and one or two standouts. It’s  one of the most evenly-matched casts I can remember seeing, or having the distinct pleasure of hearing, and I’m not just talking about opera. This must, one would think, through all the more kudos onto Cox and co, as much as the superlative cast here assembled.

Andrew Brunsdon is ideal as the handsome, ‘pure soul’ and (somewhat wide-eyed) composer, Flamand. Michael Lewis, as the more serious-minded, cantankerous poet, Olivier, equally so. Conal Coad is factory-fitted with the fulsome ebullience one imagines of La Roche, the self-aggrandising impresario, producer and director. Here, in prophetic, living colour is the Cam Mackintosh of the day. Christopher Tonkin, as the sandwich-short-of-a-sophisticated spread Count, is the very epitome of self-indulgent ignorance. Here, but for savvy, is the Hugh Hefner of French flapperdom. Tania Ferris, as Clairon, an actress as deliciously self-obsessed as they come. John Longmuir is the quintessence of an Italian tenor, with a finnicky temperament, tested sorely by his sherry-toting counterpart, the Italian soprano, played by Nicole Car. Dancers Aude Florentin and Adrian Van Winkelhof add hot sauce to supreme skill and theirs is as entertaining a performance as any.

All these and more, including the servants, are flawlessly comely and compelling, vocally and theatrically. It’s a pity Strauss, Nazi or not, can’t be here to see this production. I reckon even he’d be astonished.

The details: Capriccio plays five more performances at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 27. Tickets on the company website.