Nina Stemme, the flawless Swede, is fast becoming one of my favorite singers. She’s got the looks, the acting chops, and the kind of giant voice that slices through orchestras with incredible ease. I saw her last year in a revival of “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Metropolitan Opera, and she sang with incredible lyricism and sensitivity…also, she was hilarious as the prima donna. She - quite inexplicably - hasn’t been heard much in the states, but she’s an acclaimed Isolde over in Europe. Please, dear god, can we have more of her over here???
Oh Natalie, how I adore you so! Who else would be so game as to reinvent Zerbinetta as a rocker-chick/hooker with Harlequin as her pimp? This is the kind of bold, revisionist theatricality that is sorely lacking at the new Met. Sadly, it’s far too radical for the traditionalists, but I think it’s interesting and new…why not try it?
My love affair with Richard Strauss began after I saw “Der Rosenkavalier” for the first time. It was the first time I realized what opera, at it’s best, can achieve. I had tears streaming down my face during the Marchallin’s monologue, when she says, “At times I wake in the middle of the night, and go to all the clocks…and stop them.” It’s such a poignant statement about existence and life…and then there’s the final trio.
Why does Violeta Urmana think she belongs in the Zwischenfach category? One listen to her latest Ariadne at the Metropolitan Opera would suggest otherwise. It’s not just that she struggles with the top notes, she can’t even handle the cantilena of Strauss’ magisterial score.
Of course, it would be hard to top last year’s amazing Ariadne courtesy of Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. Here was the real thing, a Nordic soprano who sang with dramatic power and sweeping fervor. Her voice has a dark hue, like rich chocolate, yet her singing was never overemotive, sloppy, or vocally blatant. She was able to shape phrases with elegance and lyricism - a rare quality, I find, with dramatic voices.
In the opera proper, Ms. Stemme was hilarious, striking the right balance between Ariadne’s anguish and The Prima Donna’s annoyance at having to share the stage with the Commedia dell’arte troupe. She conjured the right mix of sincerity and dead-pan comic timing.
The same could not be said of Kathleen Kim’s overly cutesy-pie Zerbinetta. It’s unfair, but Natalie Dessay still owns this part, mainly because she used her skills as an actress to paint such a quirky and hilarious portrait of a real character, who is usually nothing more than a perky coquette. Ms. Kim is a pretty young woman with a pretty voice (a tad thin and trilly for my taste), but her Zerbinetta lacks any risk or personal stamp that might make the character her own.
Elijah Moshinsky’s handsome production (which, apparently, he hasn’t touched since it’s debut in 1993) has aged well. The stage pictures remain arresting, but the Met could certainly bring him back to breath new life into the creaky bits. The prologue is a tad unfocused, and the opera feels dramatically static after Bacchus arrives to save Ariadne.
Still, one has to question why Ms. Stemme wasn’t booked for a second engagement as “Ariadne” and why she hasn’t been heard at this house more frequently. (Her last appearance at the Met was her debut as Senta in “Der Fliegende Holländer” back in 2000.) Apparently, she’s an incredible Isolde, I can believe it. She has the dramatic power and vocal beauty to carry off that daunting part. Might it be time for a revival? As for Ms. Urmana, the role of Ariadne is not a fit vocally or dramatically. Simply put: she shouldn’t be singing it…at least, not with Ms. Stemme around.
idontgiveafach is totally excited for Ariadne auf Naxos with Deborah Voigt. All you Voigt haters have to concede that she OWNS this part!
When music and text commingle, a composer and a poet vie for the love of a countess, and the servants of the manner start commenting on the plot as it’s unfolding, all’s right in the kingdom of the meta-theatrical opera that is “Capriccio.” Who could resist the vision of a stage full of dedicated lovers of the theater singing Strauss’ soaring lines in unison to express a wealth of complex emotions? Presumably nobody at the Metropolitan Opera house, where this latest revival of Strauss’ final opera had it’s last performance. It was also the live HD broadcast performance and - from where I was sitting - you had to wonder why this opera isn’t regularly staged.
Why is it that this brilliant ensemble piece is only staged as a vehicle for a star soprano. Sure, the final scene contains some of the most ravishing music written for a soprano, but the work stands on its own. This is a funny, intelligent, and insightful piece of lyric-drama and some of the best music Strauss ever wrote. This work easily qualifies with “Ariadne auf Naxos” and “Der Rosenkavalier”…in some ways it’s superior because the libretto is flawless. FYI: I love “Salome” and “Elektra,” but I can’t bring myself to make a comparison; early Strauss is almost an entirely different composer from late Strauss.
It’s interesting that Hugo von Hofmannsthal was not the librettist for this opera, because the piece reflects his sensibilities and philosophies about opera and theater in general. Hofmannsthal always wanted to stage his librettos as plays first to test the quality of the drama but it would’ve been too expensive. It’s very clear that Strauss co-wrote the libretto. Above all, Capriccio is a grand love letter to opera, both celebrating it while affectionately mocking it. This opera is TRULY funny which is very rare. The Italian singer parody was a particular high-point…I almost spit up my Sourpatch Kids laughing so hard. Critics have said that the opera remains ambiguous; that Strauss has no viewpoint. They argue that the question of text versus music is left unanswered but - in fact - Strauss could not have been clearer: music elevates text, and text deepens and emboldens music.
Watching these HD transmissions can be a stultifying experience. One questions what the cameramen (or maybe you) are smoking. But since the fine broadcast of “Lucia,” there seems to be a marked improvement in how they film these broadcasts. Then again, “Lucia” had superb singing actors going for it, and that was very much the case here as well.
You’ll never see a more hunky cast of men who can sing and act on an opera stage. The rising tenor Joseph Kaiser was outstanding as the passionate composer Flamand. He managed the impossible feat of creating a nuanced portrayal of a passionate man ruled by his emotions. Every moment Mr. Kaiser provided felt utterly spontaneous. You felt he was truly reacting to his circumstances moment for moment. In his long, lyrical monologue - where he professes his love to the countess - it was easy to understand why she could easily fall for him. It did’t hurt that Mr. Kaiser is an extremely good-looking man…this was one sexy composer!
Next was the equally brilliant baritone Russell Braun as the poet Olivier. Mr. Braun infused his character with an awkward physicality and a cerebral demeanor befitting an academic. His Olivier was just as passionate as Flamand, but Mr. Braun imbued the character with an awkwardness that made him adorably sympathetic. Mr. Braun’s Olivier was a slightly shy bookworm, but he played it without resorting to shtick or caricature.
The veteran Strauss baritone, Morten Frank Larsen, was hilarious as the count, hell-bent on seducing the actress Clarion (played by the wonderful Sarah Connolly.) He even goes so far as to claim the leading man role, even though he is a terrible actor. The scene in which the count does a cold-read with Clarion was comedic gold! Using mawkish, stiff, expansive gestures, and completely inappropriate line inflections, Mr. Larsen showed what a brilliant comic actor he is. Again, it helped that he is a total barihunk; you understand why Clarion is all too eager to indulge the count (despite his terrible acting skills.)
So that brings us to La Fleming. As we all know, her voice was pretty much put on this earth to sing Strauss. A year ago, she moved me to tears with her portrayal of the Marschallin and completely changed my perception of what opera (at it’s best) is capable of. The countess is not as profound a character as the Marschallin. She’s a highly romantic woman who believes in art, but she’s grounded and very charming. Fleming oscillated between cheeky sarcasm and wistful introspection. All in all, it was a triumph; one that she desperately needed after her disastrous “Armida.”
My only quibble - and it’s a minor one - was her use of mannered stage business during the interludes. It was pointless and I wish she’d used a bit more restraint, especially when you consider this is a woman of status. Still, it was an honest performance and one only she could give. As for her singing, well, it goes without saying that she knocked it out of the park. She sang with creamy legato, a plush middle, and silvery top notes. She shaped Strauss’ phrases with her own personal touches and consummate musicianship.
I know this is shallow, but in the final scene - where the countess ruminates over love and art - set to the most beautiful music on the planet, Fleming donned a tacky sequined gown with a long, ungainly train. She looked like a disco-ball. To add insult to injury, she held an ENORMOUS feathered fan that belonged in “La Cage” or “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” I tried to ignore all this, but it proved way too distracting. The costuming made no sense in the context of the opera, and it was clearly the Met making a DIVA moment for Fleming. She looked like the drag version of herself.
When she sang the final scene at her 2007 gala, she wore a dynamite John Galliano gown with long black gloves. She looked gorgeous and classy…I guess Galliano wanted it back. Who knows?
Anyway, “Capriccio” is a brilliant opera and it’s underrated. It deserves to be staged more often; it’s thought provoking, intelligent, and has beautiful music. What more could you want? Well…aside from a better finale gown.
note: I know the dress doesn’t look that bad in these pics but, trust me, it was fucking freaky…