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The arrival of these two splendid DVDs for review simultaneously is uncommonly serendipitous.

Capriccio deals with the clash between new and older styles and the raging feud between "Gluckists" and "Piccinists", and that important phase in musical history is traversed in the excellent, indeed indispensible documentary Gluck - The Reformer provided with the DVD of Iphigenie en Tauride.

Christoph Willibald Gluck IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE

Juliette Galstian, Rodney Gilfry, Deon van der Walt, Anton Scharinger Martina Jankova, Anna Soranno Lisa Lorenz, Eleanor Paunovic, Michael Mrosek, Thomas Pütz:
Zurich Opera's Orchestra La Scintilla
Conductor: William Christie
[TT: Opera: 108 min, Documentary Gluck - The Reformer: 58 min]

ARTHAUS 100 354

Klaus Guth’s modernist production of Iphiginie at Zurich underpins the psychologically complex classical drama of violated blood ties with the use of masked doubles for the protagonists, placed in perspective by an illuminating documentary film

We watched the first Act with mixed feelings of admiration and bemusement; puzzled by some aspects of the production, but riveted by the wonderful Juliette Galstian as the eponymous heroine and by the authoritative conducting of William Christie, his Zurich orchestra perfectly recorded and balanced.

We then turned to the documentary, and would advise you to do likewise. Klaus Guth explains his use of masks and overall conception, with several significant details which would pass unnoticed or fail to be understood without his explanations.and and Christie and John Eliot Gardiner discuss this quite extraordinary opera in detail, with illuminating contributions from the main singers. There are also clips from other Gluck opera productions, regrettably without any attributions.

Back to the opera, its setting in confined spaces makes it ideal for home viewing, the argument carried forward clearly with the essential subtitles. These hold attention through the heightened recitatives, which flower into short arias and intense duos and trios for the three main characters to convey their agonising choices. The chorus, with its own dramatic role, is important in this new genre, having fallen into disuse in the earlier Italian operas which concentrated on virtuoso singing. By the end one was fully involved, and I can recommend this as one of the most worthwhile opera DVDs, one to be thought about and certainly viewed more than once.

Richard Strauss CAPRICCIO

Kiri Te Kanawa, Hakan Hagegard, Tatiana Troyanos, Victor Braun, David Kuebler, Simon Keenlyside, Michel Senechal, Dale Travis
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Conductor: Donald Runnicles

ARTHAUS 100 376 [TT: 144 min]

This “treat for cultural connoisseurs” is a conversation piece set to a brilliant libretto by Clemens Krauss, dealing with the controversies aroused by Gluck's reforms. It is directed in San Francisco by Stephen Lawless, in an 18th Century setting with gorgeous costumes.

San Francisco Opera on DVD gives us, by contrast, a perfectly realised traditional production from 1993, set in a palatial 18th C drawing room, with gorgeous costumes to emphasise the opulence of the setting.

Although I understand from another review that there are some unfortunate cuts (ironically, the need for cuts is a sub-theme in the opera itself!) this is by far the most enjoyable experience of this conversation piece I have encountered.

The camera work is fine, cutting back and forth with due rapidity to keep pace with the quick-silver exhanges of conversation (unusual pacing for opera!) though it has to be said that picture quality (format 4:3) is not sharp nor is the overall sound quality nearly as vivid as for the Gluck Iphiginie DVD. The subtitles are satisfactory, and far more comfortable to follow than surtitles in an opera house or small print on CD booklets, those especially confusing in ensembles.

Kiri de Kanawa is ideally cast as the mature, wealthy Countess, in excellent voice, looking ravishing as she dallies between her two young suitors. I liked these rivals for her affections, claiming primacy for their creations of word and music respectively, a disputation which could have no victory. There is at times, particularly early on, some overloud and less than subtle singing, notably by Victor Braun & Hakan Hagegard, projecting to a large opera house; Braun's monologue, staking his claim for the realities of theatical production makes a strong and persuasive effect and Michel Senechal steals the show with his cameo emergence from the dark as the prompter.. My only slight reservation is about the balance with the orchestra under the capable hands of Donald Runnicles - singers a little too forward sometimes to my taste, though better in the last scenes which are duly moving, after a few longeurs on the way - Capriccio is played continuously.

This balance question is discussed also below, and it is another issue of words v. music which will never be finally settled. Clemens Krauss, Strauss's librettist told the Munich singers that there was no point in opera if one could not hear every word; Strauss riposted that he wouldn't mind "if every now and then you heard a bit of my music"!

Balance is for musician listeners by far the most important sound quality parameter in broadcast and recorded performance. Operatic and vocal recordings apart, instrumental duos and concertos provide common examples of 'accompanists' are overwhelmed by 'soloists'. How far is technology away from the stage when listeners at home might be able to fine-tweak the balance to their own preferences? Glenn Gould would have approved such democratisation and he built like possibilities into some of his later studio recordings.

Quibbling aside, both operas need to be seen as well as heard, so you will do well to invest in these two DVDs for pleasure and enlightenment.

Below, I append extracts from our full review of an Amsterdam production of Capriccio, with innovations which offered renewal, and renewed insights, and thereby played its part in keeping opera alive.

Peter Grahame Woolf


Richard Strauss CAPRICCIO Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, September 2000.
(AW & PGW)

This unique work by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) first performed in Munich in 1942, was his last for the theatre, a conversation piece for music in one act. It can be seen as his intellectual testament in the form of, not so much a conversation, but an argument to justify the genre of opera.

There is a problem of how to stage an intellectual dispute, and embody an argument visually, in a meaningful way. If Strauss's stage directions had been followed explicitly there would have been a danger for a contemporary audience to lose sight of the problems under discussion in, or under, naturalised or personalised details. There is the danger of a front covering up the underlying essence, namely a dispute about cultural hierarchies.

What is more important, more valuable, more valid, more meaningful: words or music, theatre or abstract music? Such categorisations, canons and hierarchies had been under attack for some time, from avant-garde artists in many fields, by the time Strauss joined the fray in the form of a composition.

The Nederlandse Opera at Amsterdam's Muziektheater has dispensed with the elaborate and ornate trappings of18th century rococco castles and their social conventions. Instead, under the direction of Andreas Homoki, this production homes in on the essence of Capriccio. The stage set by Frank Philipp Schloessmann was nothing less than brilliant, in cutting through the surface, and presenting the arguments in visual form.

The stage picture was at one and the same time thrown open, and held in, by a full height, full width, opened musical score, with white notes on a charcoal grey ground and a fold, slightly off-centre to the left, receding to create a triangular floor space. A large white, movable cube, with diagonal black hand-written text, presumably in Strauss's own hand (?) over all its surfaces, nestled in front of the giant score. The ground bore the reflections of the musical score. Thus the staging set the metaphorical core of this work in front of the audience in a very direct way.

The beautiful costumes in black and white designed by Mechtild Seipel were theatrically stylised, with allusions to the modern, jazzy era, as well a to the 18th century, with - for light relief - some deliciously funny attires to ridicule Italian opera conventions. The costumes clothed the arguments, rather than created psychological pointers to characters. The subtle lighting by Franck Evin helped to focus attention on both text and music.

Strauss's argument, that both words and music are indispensable and interdependent, to reach emotional as well as intellectual understanding, was presented, through the Countess, by Angela Denoke, with utter musical conviction. David Kuebler as Flamand (defending pure music) and Dietrich Henschel (contesting on behalf of word play) were both stated their cases well. Olaf Bär and Hans Sotin distinguished themselves as the Countess's brother and the theatre director, who made the strong case for the importance of the theatre as the employer of purveyors of words and music alike, and the role of dance too was not ignored. All the singing from the supporting characters was of a high standard and the movements of this ensemble team (none of whom ever had an opportunity to sit down!) were smooth and always good to watch. The idiomatic conducting was by Hartmut Haenchen, who achieved perfect balance in this judiciously scored piece, despite the Muziektheater not having a submerged orchestra pit.

After so many conventions had been attacked and overturned, Richard Strauss was reasonably concerned about the continued existence of Opera as a viable art form. He has been vindicated. In our post-modern era Opera is not only alive and well, but flourishing and expanding as the cross-over art-form par excellence, capable of embodying current social and cultural values.

This production of Capriccio by the Nederlandse Opera deals imaginatively, and in a contemporary idiom, with a historical and historically important work of music theatre. Mounted in Amsterdam's thoroughly up to date opera house (which caused understandable controversy when it first appeared in its key position at the head of the Amstel) it offers renewal and renewed insights and thereby plays its part in keeping opera alive. (Alexa Woolf )

Editor's addendum: With the surtitles given in Dutch, naturally, this text-dominated opera was not the ideal one for a foreigner's visit to Amsterdam's Musiktheater. Indeed for one of us (who is German speaking) surtitles in the language of the performance (as provided in English at Covent Garden this month for Britten's Billy Budd) would have assisted - it is always hard to capture every word, especially from sopranos in high register, and in Capriccio it really does matter.

Upon return, it was a pleasure to listen afterwards to the historic Walter Legge/Sawallisch recording of 1957, with Schwarzkopf supported by a dream cast, and to savour the uncommon intelligence and sophistication of the libretto. This has now been reissued by EMI at mid-price and is a top recommendation, EMI 7 49014 8 (ADD, mono), though for those wanting the most modern recording there is also a new version with Felicity Lott (Forlane 268052) which is of a May '99 concert performance in Mannheim. I have been able to sample it and despite good orchestral sound in stereo, it doesn't hold a candle to the one of forty years earlier. Felicity Lott (as heard on my equipment) does not sound in her best voice, and her supporting cast cannot compare with Fischer-Dieskau et al, nor George Prêtre with Sawallisch. The presentation too is far from ideal, with German & English words placed in separate sections of the text booklet (which makes following it with the English almost impossible) and track details only in a different booklet, so a lot of juggling is required!

Seen&Heard and Music on the Web have maintained an interest (amounting to a small sustained campaign) in questions of balance between text and music in concert & CD presentation, and between soloist and orchestra in recordings, so it is pertinent to mention finally another relevant point. That justly admired EMI recording was balanced by Douglas Larter who, in my opinion, favoured unduly (by just a little) the voices over the orchestra, a common cause for complaint. With text and translations to hand for listeners, this was unnecessary and should be deplored; having heard in Amsterdam how easily the work can be balanced to perfection in the opera house confirmed my opinion. (PGW)

(See also the interesting and thoughtful review of the USA release on DVD of the same 1993 San Francisco filming by Nora Renka from Chicago, who comes to slightly different conclusions and recommendations.)