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.

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - I James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

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

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