Review: ‘Capriccio’ at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia

What’s a countess to do? Should the young widow, Countess Madeleine, marry the poet Olivier or the composer Flamand? Such is the dilemma of Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio–a clever allegory on the relative value of words versus music, with a libretto by conductor Clemens Krauss. Presented by the Curtis Institute of Music in association with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the new Curtis Opera Theatre production of the one-act, two-hour-and-twenty-minute work, which premiered in Munich in 1942, is sung in German with English supertitles and performed without intermission, as Strauss intended.

The Ensemble: Ashley Milanese, Roy Hage, Thomas Shivone, Doğukan Kuran, Jarrett Ott, Evan LeRoy Johnson, Kirsten MacKinnon, Tyler Zimmerman, and Lauren Eberwein. Photo by Cory Weaver.
The Ensemble: Ashley Milanese, Roy Hage, Thomas Shivone, Doğukan Kuran, Jarrett Ott, Evan LeRoy Johnson, Kirsten MacKinnon, Tyler Zimmerman, and Lauren Eberwein. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Caught between her two suitors, the Countess must decide who will win her hand, as they declare their love and compete for her affections with their respective talents. After a coterie of artists—a theater director, an actress, a ballerina, two Italian singers, and the composer and poet–perform at the Countess’s birthday salon and debate the relative merits and hierarchy of their media (fueled by copious amounts of champagne!), she resolves to settle her romantic/artistic conundrum by commissioning an original opera-within-the-opera about the events of the afternoon, for which Olivier provides the words, Flamand sets them to music, and she determines the ending, by choosing the one she loves most.

Subtitled A Conversation Piece for Music, Capriccio is part spoken and part sung, both theatrical and operatic, with extended orchestral interludes and passages of dance, all employed to express the friendly rivalry and inextricable interconnections among the disciplines. Witty personifications, parodic self-referencing, and exquisite segments highlighting each of the art forms, render the opera equally intelligent, amusing, and captivating, and make the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time fly by.

Under the delightful stage direction of Chas Rader-Shieber, soprano Kirsten MacKinnon, as the indecisive Countess, leads a splendid cast with her clear pure vocals and expressive acting, capturing the emotions of her character and the lush beauty of Strauss’s Baroque-inspired score. Alone on stage for the introspective and bittersweet twenty-minute “Final Scene,” she masterfully conveys Strauss’s fundamental conceit that “words sing and music speaks” and the “two merge into one” in opera.

Kirsten MacKinnon. Photo by Cory Weaver
Kirsten MacKinnon. Photo by Cory Weaver

Baritone Doğukan Kuran as Olivier and tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson as Flamand are her evenly-matched romantic rivals, skillfully revealing their opposing personalities with contrasting renditions in poetry and song of the love sonnet “Nothing Else Flames So in my Heart.”

Jarrett Ott, a 2014 Curtis graduate and the critically acclaimed lead in Opera Philadelphia’s recent east-coast premiere of Cold Mountain, brings his rich baritone voice and humorous characterization to Madeleine’s brother the Count, a proponent of words and detractor of music, who proclaims that “Opera is an absurd thing.” He is enamored of the actress Clairon, played with gusto by resonant mezzo-soprano Lauren Eberwein, and even more so of himself, frequently checking his handsome image in the mirror.

Other standouts in the cast are guest artist Emily Davis, who dances a delicate and graceful ballet segment choreographed by Russell Ducker and including extensive en-pointe passages; Roy Hage and Ashley Milanese who turn in hilarious caricatures of over-the-top Italian singers competing for attention in their duet; and Tyler Zimmerman as the long-time director La Roche, derided by his younger colleagues for his heartfelt defense of the theater, then declaring to them with exasperation, “I’m the expert!” The Curtis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Myers, masters Strauss’s lush score, from the beautiful six-minute opening sextet to the richly melodic musical interludes and moving finale, to the gentle cacophony of the characters’ impassioned group sparring.

Jarrett Ott and Lauren Eberwein. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Jarrett Ott and Lauren Eberwein. Photo by Cory Weaver.

With the production’s resetting of Capriccio from 18th-century France to modern times, Robert Perdziola’s set and costume designs evoke the triumph of art over war, and the power of the arts to restore post-war spirits, as the interior surrounded by rubble opens up to fertile foliage, and the palette shifts from black and white to the vibrant red of the Countess’s flowers and gown. The colors are supported by Christopher Ostrom’s telling lighting, which changes with the times of day and the moods of the Countess.

The Curtis Institute’s partnership with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center gives emerging talents from the world-renowned conservatory the opportunity to perform with professional artists in a fully staged production at a major public venue, while their forward-looking collaborators have the chance to become acquainted with the stars of the future.

Everyone benefits from this excellent collaboration of Capriccio–most especially the audience!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with no intermission.

Capriccio plays through Sunday, March 6, 2016, presented by the Curtis Institute of Music’s Curtis Opera Theatre in association with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, performing at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.

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Read a Synopsis of Capriccio.