Watching Renée Fleming and friends as they diverted themselves in the overheated drawing room (complete with harpsichord and harp) that forms the set of Richard Strauss' Capriccio, all I could think was: somebody needs to haul these people out to the countryside and make them dig irrigation ditches. There are many things you can say about this remarkable opera but one is that it is a monument--no, a love letter--to the haute bourgoisie that define so much of the dart world around the end of the 19th Century. Thin Proust's Paris, Mann's Hanseatic League, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha (the Compsons, remember?), even, by a slight stretch, the Ranevskys in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. They're civilized (more or less), they're cultivated (somewhat), they are cosseted (more than they know) and they are bored, bored, bored, much more than they want to admit even to themselves. In the case of Strauss' "countess": and friends, they turn it all into a kind of parlor game or, as Strauss calls it, "A Conversation Piece for Music."
But I risk letting myself be misunderstood. There are actually many things to enjoy about Strauss' farewell offering on the opera stage--not least the fact that by planting his tale at the very epicenter of frivolity, Strauss has poofed (one suspects intentionally) an overripe raspberry into the mustache of his supposed mentor and protector, Adolph himself, the voice and face of the Thousand-year Reich (think an uptown version of this).
Beyond context--Capriccio can be read as an old man's work, fit company (if not quite a match) for Verdi's Falstaff, Shakespeare's Tempest or maybe Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus--the wry wisdom, the same not of not quite mellow reconciliation. Also and perhaps more important, it has something close to Verdi's musical fertility: it spills out ideas as if the composer had decided that, this behing his last outing, he might as well empty the bin (and indeed the plot, if there is one, turns on a slightly clownish old producer, here played by Peter Rose whose CV itself includes at least one first-rate Falstaff).
Still you'd have to concede that goes slack after a while. And for all its charms, you come to realize pretty quickly that it's here because Fleming, still at the peak of prestige and able to demand about any role she wants. Fortunately this one suits her: at 52 she, like her "Countess," (and the composer) is willing and able to preside over a contention about the nature of art, and to provide her own summing-up. That finale has her on stage mostly alone for the last 20 minutes and here is one place where I think that HD proves markedly inferior to live performance. Even Fleming's face can grow tiresome after a while and you find yourself closing your eyes just to get away from her. Fortunately, there is music enough to keep you engaged, challenged and entertained right through to the last bar.
Political Footnote: I have to admit to a bit of ambivalence about Strauss' allowing himself to be protected by the Nazis, in a world where Joseph Roth drank himself to death and Stephan Zweig committed suicide. I don't suppose I'm informed enough to judge, although I have heard that he had a Jewish daughter in law to protect, and grandchildren.
Linguistic Footnote: It just now sank into me that a Capriccio is not the same as a Carpaccio. A Capriccio is, I take it, a small caprice. A Carpaccio is, of course, a large carp.