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POV succeeds in a Strauss rarity

The Royal Theatre
02/25/2010 -  & February 27, March 2, 4, 6
Richard Strauss:Capriccio, opus 85
Erin Wall (The Countess Madeleine), Kurt Lehamnn (Flamand), Joshua Hopkins (Olivier), Brian Bannatyne-Scott (La Roche), James Westman (The Count), Norine Burgess (Clairon), Michael Colvin (The Italian Tenor), Virginia Hatfield (The Italian Soprano), Doug MacNaughton (The Major-Domo), J. Patrick Raftery (M. Taupe)
Victoria Symphony Orchestra, Members of the Pacific Opera Victoria Chorus, Timothy Vernon (Conductor)
Robert McQueen (Director), Christina Poddubiuk (Set & Costume Designer), Paul Destrooper (Choreographer), Alan Brodie (Lighting Designer)

Pacific Opera Victoria was founded in 1980 and a crucial decision was made early on to explore operatic repertory beyond the “top twenty”. Under Artistic Director and chief conductor Timothy Vernon, the results have been successful – in fact other companies took note and have chosen a similar policy. The current venture off the beaten track is Richard Strauss’s “conversation in music” in its first full staging in Canada.

The venue is the ornate Royal Theatre (capacity 1400), dating from 1913. Its undersized pit has prompted Timothy Vernon to devise a version for 40 players (a move with positive budget results as well). Wallowing in hyper-caloric Straussian lushness is always a guilty pleasure, but the slimmed-down approach works nicely. The vital horn parts, for example, are impeccably played.

Updating the production to the era of the work’s gestation (the late 1930s) is only somewhat jarring. The social relations aren’t necessarily that different from the 1775 (in either period a count or countess could form a romantic attachment with no commitment to matrimony to a commoner in the arts – and let’s face it, neither the poet Olivier nor the composer Flamand expects to marry the Countess, and neither is the Count intending to make an honest woman of the actress Clairon). References to 18th-century composers (for example the Gluck vs. Piccinni debate) stand out as anachronistic, but that’s about it.

The updating has a positive effect in that it allows characters to disport themselves more freely than would be deemed acceptable in the ancien régime, thus giving a degree of action to a work that is notoriously devoid of it. A downright Noel Coward-ish atmosphere results. Other staging innovations work well. One example: after Flamand has declared his love for the Countess, the stage direction is for him to kiss her ardently on the arm then leave the room, and this is followed by an instrumental passage during which she is to ponder what has just occurred. Instead, director Robert McQueen has Flamand kiss her on the lips, and just at that moment Olivier enters; during the ensuing instrumental passage we see his reaction to the kiss as well as hers.

The production is exceedingly well cast. This is Erin Wall’s role debut and only her second Strauss part (Daphne being the first). Her first scenes seem somewhat tentative vocally, but it all comes into focus for the beautiful concluding monologue. (The lighting for the final scene is exceptional as well.) One can safely conclude that there is more Strauss in her future.

James Westman portrays the Count as an overgrown boy (perhaps one of Bertie Wooster’s friends) – and he sings well, too. Brian Bannatyne-Scott gives a truly masterful account of the theatre director La Roche in all his staginess and, when it counts, sincerity.

I sometimes wished for a bit more voice from Norine Burgess as the actress Clairon, but she looks appropriately glamorous and drops the character’s arch persona convincingly in the brief spat with her former paramour, Olivier.

Kurt Lehmann gives a heartfelt performance of his new aria set to Olivier’s sonnet (“Kein Andres, das mir so im herzen loht”) and is, overall, the personification of the ardent young composer, surely the most grateful tenor role created by Strauss. Joshua Hopkins also gives a performance that is both vocally and dramatically focused as the frustrated poet.

Virginia Hatfield and Michael Colvin display healthy vocalism as the over-the-top Italian Singers. J. Patrick Raftery (as M. Taupe, the dozy prompter) and Doug MacNaughton (as the Major-Domo) give exemplary cameos.

Andrea Bayne and Paul Destrooper are spot-on as the two happily oblivious dancers. A delightful extra is a wacky performance of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus just when La Roche extols his latest ultra-dramatic concept. (It really helps to have a tiny ballerina for this.)

Timothy Vernon’s conducting is sensitive and nuanced. An interesting anecdote: he first saw the work when studying in Vienna under noted conductor (and teacher of many noted conductors) Hans Swarowsky. Swarowsky was a student of both Richard Strauss and librettist/conductor Clemens Krauss, and it was he who translated into German the sonnet (“Kien andres…”), originally by the 16th-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard, and brought it to Strauss’s attention. This sonnet provides the core of the work, first recited by the Count as he attempts to impress Clairon, then recited by Olivier as he declares his love for the Countess, then set to music by Flamand as he in turn declares his love for the Countess. And of course it returns so beautifully in her glowing concluding scene.

The performance has been recorded by CBC Radio and will be broadcast in the near future – I look forward to hearing it again.

Even those who appreciate this opera concede that it is awfully talky and rather too long for its content. Still, it is worth doing and Pacific Opera Victoria can chalk up another unlikely success.

Pacific Opera Victoria

Michael Johnson



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