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.