Capriccio:  Mondscheinmusik und Letze Szene

Capriccio had its premiere at the Munich, National Theater, 1942.   It was Richard Strauss’s final opera, and it is a sophisticated “conversation piece for music” (the work’s actual subtitle) centering on the age-old question of whether words or music take precedence in theater and in the arts in general. A poet and a musician submit their respective creations to a young countess and ask her to decide. Implicit in her verdict is another issue: which one of them will she take as her lover? Surrounding this triangle are other characters with various degrees of investment in the same question: the countess’s brother, an amateur actor who prefers erotic action to romantic theory; a celebrated actress; and a theater director with a strong sense of the practical (a combination of a Straussian alter ego and an affectionate caricature of the great director Max Reinhardt). The conversation moves to opera as the consummation of all the arts, and it is decided that the poet and the musician should write one together—with the day’s events as its subject. The ending is unknown: the countess must choose it. This light framework provides many opportunities for witty interactions and virtuoso musical touches. The idea of “words versus music” goes all the way back to baroque opera, and this theme had also served as the basis for a short opera by Antonio Salieri, performed in Vienna in 1786, and a whiff of nostalgia for a lost (if imaginary) era of refinement permeates Capriccio. There is little action in any conventional sense, but there is great insight and plenty of beauty. Furthermore, it is impossible to experience this opera without taking into account the circumstances of its composition and premiere in wartime Germany. Considered in this context, its seeming “triviality” assumes a poignant significance (the word “trivial” appears in the countess’s last line in the libretto, posed as a question). The opera’s steadfast insistence on the importance of aesthetics and courtly love pleads for the continued celebration of beauty itself in a violent, ugly world. While undeniably more subtle than Strauss’s earlier operas, that very subtlety becomes Capriccio’s most outstanding and powerful feature. The setting Strauss imagined his work set at a chateau near Paris, with its own private theater. (Indeed, the air of luxury is an integral aspect of the story.) The opera was originally set in the second half of the 18th century, a time when debates about the merits of various genres of music theater triggered elaborate wars of words in and around the French capital. However, the issues at hand—the role of music in opera, the need for plausible drama, the function of dance, design, and stagecraft—are not specific to that era. Richard Strauss (1864–1949) composed an impressive body of orchestral works and songs before turning to opera. After two early failures, Salome (1905) caused a theatrical sensation, and the balance of his long career was largely dedicated to the stage, with most of his works through the 1920s written in collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The idea for Capriccio originated with Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer of novels, plays, and non-fiction who had written the libretto to Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau (1935). Zweig’s Jewish background made further collaboration impossible, and the composer turned to his friend and colleague Clemens Krauss (1893–1954), an Austrian impresario and conductor who also led Capriccio’s premiere performance. In keeping with the general tone of Capriccio, the score is refined and more complex than it appears on first hearing. Musical forms from the 18th century are discernible, especially in the brief dance interludes. The large orchestra is used in a very light-handed manner, rarely employing its full force and instead creating the effect of a chamber ensemble. The opera’s overture, for example, is a sextet for strings—and, in keeping with the narrative of the story, forms part of the action. The vocal writing mostly keeps a conversational flow (with a few notable exceptions), ranging from actual spoken lines to “Sprechstimme” (a sort of musicalized speech) to several complex ensembles. Vocal and instrumental writing interact playfully throughout the opera. The bass’s extended monologue celebrating the art of theater represents one of the few opportunities for solo singing. The apex of the score is the final scene, a combination of a rapturous orchestral passage (the “Moonlight Music”) followed by the countess’s monologue, widely considered a supreme example of Strauss’s many superb showcases for the soprano voice.

The artist who originated the role of the Countess was Viorica Ursuleac (March 26, 1894 – October 22,1985), a Romanian operatic soprano. Viorica Ursuleac was born the daughter of a Greek Orthodox archdeacon, in Chernivtsi, which is now in Ukraine. Following training in Vienna, she made her operatic debut in Zagreb (Agram), as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, in 1922. The soprano then appeared at the Vienna Volksoper (1924–26), Frankfurt Opera (1926–30), Vienna State Opera (1930–35), Berlin State Opera (1935–37), and Bavarian State Opera(1937–44). She married the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss in Frankfurt during her time there.

She was Richard Strauss’s favorite soprano, and he called her die treueste aller Treuen (“the most faithful of all the faithful”). She sang in the world premieres of four of his operas: Arabella (1933), Friedenstag (which was dedicated to Ursuleac and Krauss, 1938), Capriccio (1942), and the public dress-rehearsal of Die Liebe der Danae (1944).

The most beautiful post Ursuleac Countess that I know of was Lisa Della Casa.  I have already given some background on her.  She was a full lyric soprano, and just about everything that she sang was wonderful.  For those more technically-minded, the air was placed so high that she always sang in with a resonant sound, and with a shimmering sound in her higher registers.  There was no drag on her voice at all; it was entirely free, and she could do what she wanted.

LETZTE SZENE
Die Bühne bleibt eine Zeit lang leer. Der Salon liegt im Dunkeln. Mondlicht auf der Terrasse. Die Gräfin tritt auf, in grosser Abendtoilette und tritt hinaus auf die Terrasse. Orchester-Zwischenspiel. Nach einiger Zeit tritt der Haushofmeister auf und entzündet die Lichter im Salon. Der Salon ist alsbald hell
erleuchtet.

GRÄFIN
Wo ist mein Bruder?

HAUSHOFMEISTER
Der Herr Graf hat Mademoiselle Clairon nach Paris begleitet. Er lässt sich für heute abend entschuldigen.

GRÄFIN
So werde ich allein soupieren. – Ein beneidenswertes Naturell! Das Flüchtige lockt ihn. Wie sagte er heute? »Heiter entscheiden – sorglos besitzen. Glück des Augenblicks – Weisheit des Lebens!« Ach! Wie einfach!
How simple!

Zum Haushofmeister
Was noch?

HAUSHOFMEISTER
Herr Olivier wird morgen nach dem Frühstück seine Aufwartung machen, um von Fran Gräfin den Schluss der Oper zu erfahren.

GRÄFIN
Den Schluss der Oper? Wann will er kommen?

HAUSHOFMEISTER
Er wird in der Bibliothek warten.

GRÄFIN
In der Bibliothek? Wann?

HAUSHOFMEISTER
Morgen mittag um elf.
geht mit einer Verbeugung ab

GRÄFIN
Morgen mittag um elf! Es ist ein Verhängnis. Seit dem Sonett sind sie unzertrennlich. Flamand wird ein wenig enttäuscht sein, statt meiner Herrn Olivier in der Bibliothek zu finden. Und ich? Den Schluss der Oper soll ich bestimmen, soll -wählen – entscheiden? Sind es die Worte, die mein Herz bewegen, oder sind es die Töne, die stärker sprechen –

Sie nimmt das Sonett zur Hand, setzt sich an die Harfe und beginnt, sich selbst begleitend, das Sonett zu singen

Kein andres, das mir so im Herzen loht,
Nein Schöne, nichts auf dieser ganzen Erde,
Kein andres, das ich so wie dich begehrte,
Und käm’ von Venus mir ein Angebot.
Dein Auge beut mir himmlisch-süsse Not,
Und wenn ein Aufschlag alle Qual vermehrte,
Ein andrer Wonne mir und Lust gewährte,
Zwei Schläge sind dann Leben oder Tod.

sich unterbrechend

Vergebliches Müh’n, die beiden zu trennen. In eins verschmolzen sind Worte und Töne – zu einem Neuen verbunden.Geheimnis der Stunde. Eine Kunst durch die andere erlöst!

Und trüg’ ich’s fünfmalhunderttausend Jahre,
Erhielte ausser dir ‘ du Wunderbare,
Kein andres Wesen über mich Gewalt.
Durch neue Adern müsst’ mein Blut ich giessen,
In meinen, voll von dir zum Überfliessen,
Fänd’ neue Liebe weder Raum noch Halt.

Sie erhebt sich und geht leidenschaftlich bewegt auf die
andere Seite der Bühn

 

Ihre Liebe schlägt mir entgegen, zart gewoben aus Versen und Klängen. Soll ich dieses Gewebe zerreissen? Bin ich nicht selbst in ihm schon verschlungen? Entscheiden für einen? Für Flamand, die grosse Seele mit den schönen Augen – Für Olivier, den starken Geist,den leidenschaftlichen Mann?

Sie sieht sich plötzlich im Spiegel

Nun, liebe Madeleine, was sagt dein Herz? Du wirst geliebt und kannst dich nicht schenken. Du fandest es süss, schwach zu sein, -Du wolltest mit der Liebe paktieren, nun stehst du selbst in Flammenund kannst dich nicht retten! Wählst du den einen – verlierst du den andern! Verliert man nicht immer, wenn man gewinnt?

Zu ihrem Spiegelbild

Ein wenig ironisch blickst du zurück? Ich will eine Antwort und nicht deinen prüfenden. Blick! Du schweigst? – O, Madeleine Madeleine!
Willst du zwischen zwei Feuern verbrennen? Du Spiegelbild der verliebten Madeleine, kannst du mir raten, kannst du mir helfen den Schluss zu finden für ihre Oper? Gibt es einen, der nicht trivial ist? –

HAUSHOFMEISTER
Frau Gräfin, das Souper ist serviert.
Die Gräfin blickt lächelnd ihr Spiegelbild an und verabschiedet sich von diesem graziös mit einem tiefen Knix. – Dann geht sie in heiterster Laune, die Melodie des Sonetts summend, an dem Haushofmeister vorbei

FINAL SCENE

The stage remains empty for a time. The room lies in darkness. Moonlight on the terrace. The Countess enters in evening dress and goes outside to the terrace. Orchestral interlude. After a while, the MajorDomo enters to light the candles.

COUNTESS
Where is my brother?

MAJOR DOMO

His Lordship has accompanied Mademoiselle Clairon to Paris. He apologizes that he will not be here this evening.

COUNTESS

Then I shall dine alone. An enviable disposition! The fleeting attracts him. What was it he said today? “Blithely decide – carefree possess! Joy of the moment – wisdom of life!”

To the Major Domo
Anything else?

Major Domo
Monsieur Olivier will pay his respects after breakfast tomorrow, to learn from Her Ladyship how the opera shall end

COUNTESS

How the opera shall end? When is he coming?

MAJOR DOMO
He will wait in the library.

COUNTESS
In the library? When?

MAJOR DOMO
Tomorrow morning at eleven.

Bows and exits

COUNTESS

Tomorrow morning at eleven! It is a disaster. Since that sonnet they are inseparable. Flammand will be a little disappointed to find my Monsieur Olivier in the library instead of me. And I? The ending of the opera…I must determine it, I must choose… decide? Is it the words that move my heart, or is it the music that speaks more strongly?

She takes the copy of the sonnet, sits at the harp and accompanies herself as she sings the sonnet.

Nothing else flames so in my heart,
no, my grace, nothing is there on earth’s whole face,
nothing else that I could sigh for as for you
Even if Venus herself were to send me an invitation.

What heavenly sweet pain your gentle eye bestows;
and if a glance should heighten all that pain…
the next restore my fondest hope and bliss entire;
two glances signify then life … or death.

interrupting herself

Fruitless effort to separate the two. Words and Music are fused into one … bound in a new synthesis. Secret of the hour… one art redeemed by the other!

And, though I lived five hundred thousand years
except you, you miracle, there could not be
another creature hold sway over me.

Through fresh veins I must needs let flow my blood,
my own with you are filled to overflowing,
and new love then could find not room nor pause.

She rises and moves movingly to the other side of the stage

Their love enfolds me, tenderly woven out of verses and sounds. Shall I destroy this fabric? Am I myself not already woven into it? Decide for one? For Flamand, the great spirit with the beautiful eyes –
for Olivier, the powerful mind, the passionate man?

She rises and looks suddenly into the mirror

Now, dear Madeleine, what says your heart? You are loved, but whom do you love now?You found it sweet not to know… you sought to make a pact with love, and now you yourself are in flames and cannot save yourself!In choosing the one you will lose the other! Does one not always lose, when one wins?

To her reflection in the mirror

You look back at me ironically? I want an answer and not your questioning look! You do not answer? O, Madeleine, Madeleine! Do you want to be consumed between two fires? You mirrored image of Madeleine in love, can you advise me, can you help me to find the ending… the ending for their opera? Is there one that is not trivial?

MAJOR DOMO
Your Ladyship, dinner is served

The Countess looks smiling into the mirror and then makes her farewell with a deep, graceful curtsy. Cheerfully humming the melody of the sonnet, she walks slowly past the Major Domo into the dining room.