Strauss’ last stand Capriccio opens at Santa Fe Opera
Music by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Clemens Krauss and Richard Strauss. Premiere: October 28, 1942, Nationaltheater, Munich. Sung in German.
The lyricist Sammy Cahn, remembered for his collaborations with the composer Jule Styne on such pop hits as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Let It Snow,” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” summed up the alliance between the arts of the wordsmith and the tunesmith: “I am often asked, Which comes first — the words or the music? I answer that what comes first is the phone call asking you to write a song.”
The which-comes-first question has bedeviled creative types since long before the era of the telephone, but it reached its apogee in 1942 in the final opera of Richard Strauss, Capriccio. By the time it was premiered that October, Strauss was seventy-eight years old and the “grand old man” of not just German music but also of opera in general. He had entered the operatic big-time with Salome in 1905, consolidated his modernist standing with Elektra in 1909, and won popular adoration through Der Rosenkavalier in 1911. By the time he reached Capriccio, Strauss had written 14 operas, all but one of which had been produced. (The outlier was the opera that immediately preceded it, Die Liebe der Danae, which he described as a “Merry Mythological Tale.” He seemed uneasy with it, and after events of World War II disrupted plans for its premiere, he let it sit unproduced.) He had composed six of his operas to librettos by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss was a practical type with a flair for the theatrical. Hofmannsthal tended toward the idealistic and cerebral. The two often clashed, as their extensive correspondence makes eminently clear, but somehow they ended up making magic when they put their differences aside and worked together toward a unified goal. “No musician ever found such a helper and supporter,” wrote Strauss following Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929. “No one will ever replace him for me or the world of music!”
Through nearly a quarter-century of working with Hofmannsthal, Strauss had often pondered the nature of their collaboration. Theirs had not been an excluarrangement. sive Strauss had written both words and music for his light opera Intermezzo (mostly in 1923), which seemed to make sense since it was an essentially autobiographical work and he wanted to stick close to the tone of familial conversation. Its casual flavor was unlike the rest of his operatic oeuvre, but he rather liked its atmosphere and turned to it again when he began contemplating Capriccio.
The “Conversation-Piece for Music,” as he dubbed it, would be a balancing act. It would grapple with what for Strauss was a deep subject, the relative importance of words and music in the creation of an opera, but it would do so through banter reminiscent of Intermezzo. (Even the titles of Capriccio and Intermezzo bear kinship, both referring to relatively lighthearted musical or theatrical categories; “intermezzo” suggests a palate-cleanser between more substantial courses, “capriccio” a whimsical flight of fancy.) The result would be both banal and profound. Retroactively, we might view it as the Seinfeld of operas — about nothing, or perhaps about everything, so long as we understand the “everything” to be from the perspective of Strauss-the-opera-composer.
Capriccio was also a balancing act in the context of the politics of its time and place, which is to say Germany in the years preceding and during World War II. Strauss’ relationship with the Third Reich makes us wince. Although a denazification panel declared him untarnished in 1948, plenty of historical evidence proclaims that he was more deeply and willingly involved with the Reich than one might have hoped. On one hand, it was natural that he should have been extolled by the party of German nationalism. He was the reigning eminence of German music and his aesthetic pedigree reached directly back to Wagner, a sanctified figure to the Third Reich. During the Nazi years, Strauss was the preeminent composer active in Germany — as opposed to the many who fled, who were outlawed (and usually killed), or who kept their music beneath the radar to escape notice and condemnation. The Nazis treated him well, awarding him honors that preceding politicos had not, and Strauss liked that.
Although his speech was sometimes peppered with egregiously anti-Semitic comments, that (it has been argued) was to some extent the nature of the vernacular language at the time. He included Jews among his friends and colleagues, opposed the blacklisting of Jewish composers, and was very upset when the authorities started to persecute his Jewish daughter-in-law and her family.
On the other hand, he served as the president of Hitler’s Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) from November 1933 to June 1935. The bureau existed to promote the great German musical tradition and eradicate “degenerate” music like jazz, 12-tone works, and compositions by Jewish composers. It was largely a figurehead appointment, and Strauss may have accepted it in hopes that his position there would help him protect his daughter-in-law. It was really controlled by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, with whom Strauss had an uneasy rapport. In fact, it was Goebbels who ended Strauss’ tenure in 1935, when the Gestapo intercepted a letter in which Strauss portrayed himself as merely going through the paces in his position at the bureau, while the real power resided with Goebbels. “I do it to bring about good and to prevent greater disasters! Simply because I know my artistic duty, I would have taken on this tiresome honorary office under any government ...”
Shortly after his ill-advised letter earned him his dismissal, Strauss wrote a sniveling letter directly to Hitler, arguing that there had been a misunderstanding, begging for a personal audience (which he did not get), and assuring “my Führer” that “I believe that I will find understanding from you, the great architect of German social life, particularly when, with deep emotion, and with deep respect, I assure you that even after my dismissal as president of the Reich Music Chamber I will devote the few years still granted to me only to the purest and most ideal goals.”
From our perspective, it does appear that Strauss was more helpful to the Nazis than he needed to be. We don’t often hear the pieces he wrote specifically for Nazi festivities, such as the 1943 Festmusik der Stadt
Wien (Festival Music for the City of Vienna), which celebrated the fifth anniversary of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Similarly consigned to general oblivion is his Festmusik zur Feier des 2600jährigen Bestehens des Kaisserreichs Japan (Festival Music for the Celebration of the 2600th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Empire of Japan), penned in 1940. Goebbels served as the intermediary in transmitting the Japanese government’s commission to Strauss, who was delighted to accept the fee of 10,000 Reichsmarks for his composition. He wrote an Olympic Hymn for the notorious Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936, this time waiving his fee. Back in 1933, just as the Nazis were beginning to impose their ideology, Arturo Toscanini had protested by withdrawing from an engagement conducting Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, the holiest of Wagnerian shrines. Strauss was happy to take over, in order to save Bayreuth (as he later protested). “To Richard Strauss, the composer, I take off my hat,” Toscanini remarked. “To Richard Strauss, the man, I put it on again.” Over and over, Strauss’ behavior invites us to view him as a mercenary — although, of course, who knows what any of us who did not walk in his shoes would have done.
The intercepted letter that got Strauss fired by Goebbels was addressed to Stefan Zweig, an AustrianJewish writer who had penned the libretto for Strauss’ brand-new opera, Die schweigsame Frau. The piece presented a conundrum to the Nazis, who were stuck between allowing the premiere of an opera by the president of the Reichsmusikkammer and forbidding it because the librettist was Jewish. (They allowed it to be performed, briefly, but Nazi officials stayed away, and it never gained a firm foothold in the repertoire.) Zweig knew it was time for him to disappear, and in 1934 he and his wife left for England. From there, they moved to New York in 1940 and later the same year to Brazil, where they soon committed double suicide.
Newly installed in England, Zweig found himself browsing in the holdings of the British Library and came across a short 18th-century comedy by Giovanni Battista Casti titled Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the Music and Then the Words). The Classical composer Antonio Salieri had used it as the basis for a
divertimento teatrale. In fact, that Salieri work was one of two operas premiered at the same festivity at the Viennese Court in 1786, the other being Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), which Santa Fe Opera produced, in altered form, two seasons ago. Those two pieces together served as complementary comedies about the art form of opera, with Mozart laughing at practical aspects of production that go awry and Salieri looking lightly at the perennial question of words vs. music. Zweig thought Casti’s play might tickle Strauss’ fancy, and he was right, although the composer didn’t focus on it until 1939. At that point, using the exiled Zweig as librettist was out of the question, so he assigned the task to another writer he had been working with, Joseph Gregor. Gregor’s valiant attempts were met with constant rebuke from the composer, who eventually took him off the job. The conductor Clemens Krauss then consented to assist Strauss in crafting the text, which is based on Casti more in idea than in substance.
The action of Capriccio strolls through a single act that runs about two-and-a-quarterhours. An intermission is sometimes inserted during that span, which is a strategy that will be employed at Santa Fe Opera. Countess Madeleine, the elegant central figure of this salon divertissement, is a young widow who amuses herself by pondering the question of whether, in opera, the music serves the words or the words serve the music. At heart, the piece’s concern is aesthetic rather than dramatic, but Strauss and Krauss personalize the matter by giving the two disciplines human form: the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier, who compete for the countess’ affection and between whom she is ultimately supposed to choose. “In choosing the one, you will lose the other,” she sighs. Other theatrical characters populate the dramatis personae: a stage director, an actress, and even a prompter offer their viewpoints on what really fuels an opera while amusing situations unroll around them. A sonnet by Ronsard, in a German translation by the conductor Hans Swarowsky (therefore another
The action is set in a château near Paris in the mid-18th century, during the time of the Querelle des bouffons, an aesthetic controversy that swirled around the competing merits of French and Italian opera. In this treatment, that early querelle is mostly viewed as embodying the presumed conflict between music and words. Strauss and Krauss take delight in making allusions both literary (Metastasio, for example) and musical (with snippets from Rameau, Gluck, and Piccinni). The cognoscenti would also pick up on Strauss’ self-quotation of material from his operas Daphne and Ariadne auf Naxos, as well as from his song-cycle Krämerspiegel (The Artist’s Mirror).
hand in the libretto), gets poked and prodded from the literary and musical directions, and in the course of the opera it works its way up from the blunt baritone recitation of the count (Madeleine’s brother) to the more florid baritone of Olivier, the musical setting by Flamand (a tenor), and finally a glorious rendition by the countess (one of Strauss’ beloved sopranos).
The action is set in a château near Paris in the mid-18th century, during the time of the Querelle des bouffons, an aesthetic controversy that swirled around the competing merits of French and Italian opera. In this treatment, that early querelle is mostly viewed as embodying the presumed conflict between music and words. Strauss and Krauss take delight in making allusions both literary (Metastasio, for example) and musical (with snippets from Rameau, Gluck, and Piccinni). The cognoscenti would also pick up on Strauss’ self-quotation of material from his operas Daphne and Ariadne auf Naxos, as well as from his song-cycle Krämerspiegel (The Artist’s Mirror). In recent years Capriccio has sometimes been described as a meta-opera, signifying an opera about opera. Indeed, when Countess Madeleine commissions Olivier and Flamand to jointly create an opera, the count comes up with the idea that their plot should be the events of that very afternoon, after which the servants chatter about how ridiculous it would be to portray servants in an opera. At some point, members of the audience are likely to be reminded of the image of a snake eating its tail. In that sense, the idea of an opera created about itself may inhabit some common ground with the whole words vs. music question. Both end up going around in circles, perhaps even after the countess has sung her glorious final scene.
Right, Amanda Majeski (Countess Madeleine); photo Ken Howard, 2016, courtesy Santa Fe Opera
Top, Ben Bliss (Flamand), Craig Verm (the Count), Amanda Majeski (Countess Madeleine), and members of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra; below, from left, Verm, Susan Graham (Clairon), and Majeski; center, Richard Strauss with Baldur von Schirach, Nazi governor of Vienna; right, Joshua Hopkins (Olivier), Majeski, and Bliss; production photos Ken Howard, 2016, courtesy Santa Fe Opera