Richard Strauss’ last opera, is a rather private piece. It is essentially an extended debate on an intellectual question: In opera, does music or text have the upper hand? strolls along a Möbius strip in which life and art exist on a continuum — an opera about a salon gathering that gives rise to that very opera, or viewed from the other direction, a salon gathering that becomes an opera about itself. It’s all terribly “meta.” Santa Fe Opera gave the work its American premiere in 1956 and revisited in 1966 and 1993. Now here it is again in a handsome, witty, and warmhearted production that will be a particular treat to opera insiders but ought to leave anyone basking in a pleasant afterglow.
Strauss set his opera in the mid-18th century; director Tim Albery preferred to set the piece in what seems to be the 1940s, and Tobias Hoheisel’s sets (he oversaw both scenic and costume design) bridge the chronological gap. The central room is the Countess’ salon, a study in gold-over-white rococo elegance. At the outset, floor-to-ceiling French doors look out onto the distantly setting sun — in this case, the actual setting sun, which further erodes the boundary between art and reality.
Fashionable costumes of that later period proclaim wealth and offhanded elegance. Everything revolves around the Countess. Soprano Amanda Majeski portrays her with casual charm and sincere warmth. Her soprano is tightly focused, her intonation is spoton, and her delivery rolls forth with conversational naturalness, with a reined-in quality that proves apt for the portrayal she has crafted.
High quality carries through to the other roles. Tenor Ben Bliss as Flamand: Such a lovely voice, lightly buoyant yet fully fleshed out. Baritone Joshua Hopkins as Olivier: His bright, unfussy delivery provides a useful counterbalance to a characterization molded a bit toward sulkiness. As La Roche, bass-baritone David Govertsen amusingly personifies theatrical vanity; his frank delivery lets the comedy roll forth unimpeded. Clairon is played by mezzosoprano Susan Graham, a superstar who shows how willing she is to meld into an ensemble cast. She is also subtly flirtatious, just enough to lead on the Count (Madeleine’s brother), here nicely sung by baritone Craig Verm. Soprano Shelley Jackson and tenor Galeano Salas were entertaining as the overwrought Italian singers; bass-baritone Adrian Smith was a solemn Major-Domo; and tenor Allan Glassman gained smiling sympathy as the pathetic prompter, who bumbles in to discover that he has slept through all the fun.
There were a few places where the question, “Which is more important, the words or the music?” seemed to be answered with “The orchestra.” Both Bliss and Hopkins had trouble being heard in a couple of climactic phrases, though not Majeski, whose tone penetrated the texture without sacrificing its beauty. Leo Hussain conducted a relatively taut reading. In the midst of troubling news from around the globe, an escapist evening basking in Straussian loveliness provides a tonic for the times.
Additional performances of “Capriccio” take place at 8 p.m. on Aug. 5, 11, and 19.
state ranges from subdued to despondent. Helene Schneiderman brought a firm mezzo-soprano to the role of the Old Baroness, but the real power of her performance came from her acting, through which she emanated commanding censure.
Zach Borichevsky looks fine in the part of Anatol, tall and trim. His tenor is attractive and bright, although it could grow tenuous at the top of his range. His voice, which is on the small side, could seem vocally underbalanced, which became noticeable in the ensembles. In general, his characterization was that of a spoiled frat boy. That proved effective in places, but elsewhere, one might hope to glimpse more of an alluring yet ominous creature.
Plaudits are due to the bass-baritone James Morris as the Old Doctor. He offered vibrant tone, clear but natural enunciation, and stage demeanor born of long experience. His interpretation of the aria “I should never have been a doctor” was a subtly turned portrayal of a good-hearted character who is not outrageously drunk but rather amusingly tipsy, which is far more entertaining.
Late-Romantic lyricism stands at the piece’s heart, such that it can suggest a movie score for extended expanses. Leonard Slatkin conducted a secure and carefully colored performance, extracting the best work I have heard this season from the company’s orchestra. This production will prove rewarding to experienced opera lovers, but it also rolls out the welcome mat to appreciators of classic films who might not automatically assume that opera is for them.
Performances of “Vanessa” continue at 8 p.m. on Aug. 12, 18, and 24.