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Music

Summerfest brings Strauss romantic opera 'Capriccio' to Pittsburgh

| Thursday, July 23, 2015, 8:55 p.m.

In Pittsburgh, we encounter the music of Richard Strauss almost exclusively in the concert hall, especially his tone poems, such as “Ein Heldenleben” or “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

But when U.S. troops came to his home in southern Germany near the end of World War II, the composer identified himself by an opera, “Richard Strauss, composer of ‘Der Rosenkavalier.' ”

Summerfest, which offered a wonderful production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” last season, has decided to offer a series of Strauss operas and continue with his last one, “Capriccio.” It was first performed during World War II, less than two years before the composer welcomed American soldiers at his door.

“ ‘Capriccio' is possibly the last expression of the romantic opera,” says Summerfest's artistic director Jonathan Eaton. “It's an allegorical swan song.”

Summerfest will present “Capriccio” on July 25, 31 and Aug. 2 at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland. It will be performed in English and with a specially created reduced orchestration.

Strauss and his librettist Clemens Krauss set the opera at a chateau near Paris in 1775, where entertainment for the countess is being created by the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier.

“Doing a comedy in the language of the audience is a huge advantage,” Eaton says. “This is also true for ‘Capriccio,' which Strauss called ‘a conversation.' For an opera on what is more important, words or music, to not be able to understand these conversations as they go on makes little sense. I think we're honoring the piece more by doing it in English than the original German.

“On another level, ‘Capriccio' is a ménage a trois in which one of her suitors deals in words and the other, the composer, deals in music. It takes an issue that's always been important to Strauss and transfers that to personal relationships,” he says.

Soprano Diana McVey is singing “Capriccio” for the first time and says the Countess has become one of her favorite roles.

“It lies perfectly for me, a dream come true,” she says of Strauss' writing. “Most of the opera is this big, long conversation. There are a few times she gets to let the horses out of the barn, especially at the end in her big scene.”

McVey notes that while the opera revolves around a decision the woman has to make, she never actually chooses.

“It's much too difficult,” she says. “There are two different layers to it. The two men, the poet and the composer, ask the Countess to decide which is more important — the words or the music. Ultimately, when she makes this decision, it's also which man does she love more. In making a choice, she loses the other.”

Eaton says Summerfest has received “the blessing of the Strauss estate” to create a reduced orchestration for 25 to 30 players. A full orchestra would be too expensive and take up too much space where Summerfest performs.

Conductor Brent McMunn considers “Capriccio” to be a gift. He was the excellent conductor for “Ariadne” in 2014.

“I personally have always been fascinated by the fine line in operas between arias, ariosos and recitative,” he says. “I've been involved in quite a few Strauss operas, including six years at Sante Fe” Opera, which staged all of the composer's operas.

“Something I learned early was his talent at making words and notes (go together) so the singer feels it lies in a speaking way. Then the conductor has to keep the balance,” McMunn says. “ ‘Capriccio' is a gentle piece. It doesn't stray into much dissonance at all. Along the way, we find Flamand has very ecstatic music and the big octet in two parts is just brilliant. It's been such a pleasure to work on.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Tribe Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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