In a song or an opera, which is more important—the words or the music?
Richard Strauss’ whimsical final opera, Capriccio, Op. 85, sets out to answer this age-old question. Subtitled “A Conversation Piece for Music,” it is a work of magical escapism, composed by the 78-year-old Strauss amid the horrors of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. (The premiere took place in Munich on October 28, 1942). The “opera within an opera” unfolds in a single act which lasts nearly two and a half hours, and consists of a series of elegant salon conversations.
The story is decadently aristocratic. At a Parisian château in the 18th century, the Countess Madeleine is wooed by two suitors, one a composer (Flamand), and the other a poet (Olivier). Her indecision extends not only to the suitors, but also to the question of which art she loves more, poetry or music? As the guests at her birthday party argue the merits of each, the Count declares that “opera is an absurd thing.” Finally, it is decided that the two suitors will collaborate on an opera based on the day’s events. The Countess must provide the ending to the opera the following morning at eleven o’clock. Left alone, she contemplates the inseparability of words and music. Ultimately, she is unwilling to choose one over another. It is the same with her choice of lover. Gazing at her reflection in a mirror, she asks, “Is there any ending that isn’t trivial?” Just before the curtain falls comes the announcement that “dinner is served,” and the Countess leaves the room.
The prelude to Capriccio is a lushly passionate and nostalgic string sextet. As the music unfolds, a persistently repeated, wavering five-note motif is passed between the instrumental voices. At moments, the tonal center comes perilously close to evaporating, yet it never plunges into the harmonic abyss. As the curtain rises halfway through the prelude, we discover that we are hearing the six musicians engaged in a rehearsal of a newly composed sextet by the Countess’ composer-suitor, Flamand.
Apart from the opera, the Sextet is often performed as a stand-alone piece. This performance, featuring Quatuor Ebène, was recorded at the Wissembourg Music Festival in 2014:
A shimmering orchestral interlude precedes the final scene. Entitled Moonlight Music, it begins with a serene, nocturnal statement by the horn, and builds to a soaring, majestic climax. The events of the day are left behind, and we enter a contemplative space, amid the mystery and magic of the night.
Andante con moto (Moonlight Music):
The opera concludes with the Countess’ monologue. With her indecision, the “opera within an opera,” as well as her choice between the composer and poet, are left unresolved. The five-note motif from the opening Sextet returns, giving us a sense of the circular, open-ended nature of the work. The final moments drift into unconcerned dreamy nocturnal repose, and conclude with the musical equivalent of a smile and a twinkle in the eye.
This performance features Renée Fleming and Walter Berry:
Final Scene – Wo ist mein Bruder?