Major Operas | Capriccio by Richard Strauss | Turn of the Century

Strauss’s final opera marked a belated return to form. He had suffered since the end of his collaboration with Hofmannsthal and jettisoned his original librettist, Joseph Gregor, in favour of the conductor Clemens Krauss.

The conception was a simple but subtle one in which the characters in the piece decide to write an opera. Only at the end is it finally clear that we have been listening to their own work.

Strauss and Krauss used the idea to examine the creative process and ceaseless discussion as to whether the words or the music should have primacy in opera. In spite of Strauss’s reservations about the work, it was enthusiastically received at its premiere in 1942 under Krauss. It has since become one his most-performed works.

Composed: 1940–41
Premiered: 1942, Munich
Libretto by the composer and Clemens Krauss

Preparations are underway for a play for Countess Madeleine’s birthday. Flamand and Olivier, rivals and respectively a composer and a poet, are discussing which comes first, words or music. La Roche, a theatre director, extols his craft. The countess is passionate about both music and drama. Her brother, the count, is to appear in Olivier’s play with the famous actress Clairon. Their newly written love-scene ends with a sonnet that Olivier confesses should be addressed to the countess. Flamand seizes the manuscript and rushes off to set it to music. Olivier asks the countess to choose between her suitors. Flamand returns and sings the finished setting, which Olivier thinks has ruined his poetry. The countess, however, believes that music has heightened the words. She claims the song for herself. Olivier is needed in the theatre, leaving Flamand alone with the countess. He describes how music overwhelmed him when he fell in love with her in the library. He begs her to choose between them and meet him there at 11 o’clock the next morning.

Everyone gathers in the salon for chocolate. The count is much taken with Clairon, who was once involved with Olivier. A performance by La Roche’s latest discovery, a dancer, leads to renewed argument about words and music, now extended to a contrast between opéra seria and Gluck’s reform operas, championed by the countess. Two Italian singers perform an old-fashioned florid duet. La Roche’s description of the two halves of the birthday entertainment, ‘The Birth of Pallas Athene’ followed by ‘The Fall of Carthage’, with elaborate scenery and effects, is greeted with general laughter that develops into Olivier and Flamand’s scorn. La Roche defends the dignity of the stage and challenges them to help him ‘people the stage with beings like us who speak our language’. The countess proposes that they should collaborate with La Roche. Subjects suggested include Daphne, Ariadne and the Trojan War. The count suggests a faithful presentation of the day’s events. All are intrigued. The guests return to Paris with the count. No one has woken Monsieur Taupe, the prompter. The countess is told that Olivier will be in the library at 11 o’clock....

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