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Review: Opera Theater Summerfest continues to impress with 'Capriccio'

| Sunday, July 26, 2015, 12:54 p.m.

Once again, opera lovers are in debt to Opera Theater Summerfest for presenting a great but neglected opera in a persuasive performance. Summerfest's staging of “Capriccio” by Richard Strauss, seen July 25 at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland, was probably its Pittsburgh premiere. It is the second opera in the company's four-year Strauss project, which began last season with an excellent “Ariadne auf Naxos” and will continue next summer with “Intermezzo.”

“Capriccio” is the last of the composer's 15 operas, which include “Salome,” “Elektra,” “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Die Frau ohne Schatten.” The composer's farewell to the operatic stage is an allegorical romantic comedy in which a composer and poet vie for the heart of a countess. They exemplify the question: Which is more important, the music or the words?

The libretto by conductor Clemens Krauss is a witty and wide-ranging consideration of the issue and much more. While the young composer Flamand and poet Olivier earnestly advocate the power of their arts, the libretto takes a much longer view. Almost everything is open to ridicule, even the idea of opera itself.

The opera begins with a neo-rococo string sextet, with rich and exquisitely poised romantic ideas in the best Strauss tradition. Conductor Brent McMunn led a beautiful and knowing account.

The sextet is more than a prelude. It is a piece by Flamand, who shares the opening scene with his friend Olivier and discovers they are both in love with the Countess of the castle at which the opera takes place.

Benjamin Robinson was dramatically effective as Flamand and used his relatively small tenor voice effectively in many passages. But he lacked the strength and stamina to sustain the melodic line in his big scene, in which he sings the song the composer has written to a poem Olivier wrote for the Countess.

Christopher Scott as Olivier has a firm and appealing baritone, but his role is never challenged by Strauss' writing to the degree Flamand is in his song.

Bass Jeremy Galyon enjoyed a great success as La Roche, the theater director. His big voice and physical size threatened to dominate every scene, but he shrewdly didn't push it and was an excellent ensemble performer. His big aria, extolling the practical importance of the director, was a show-stopper. It was delivered with absolute sincerity, the right way to deliver a number that also, by its pretentious language, mocks his sense of self-importance.

Krauss and Strauss have a lot of fun with bloated egos throughout the opera. Tenor Rafael Helbig-Kostka and soprano Julia Fox were delightful in their duet, each trying outdo the other.

The short scene for Mr. Taupe, the prompter, is cut in this production, eliminating another character who overrates his importance.

Unlike his artistically sensitive sister, the Count is a decisive man of simple and immediate pleasures. He was boldly portrayed and confidently sung by Andrew Cummings. The Count is smitten by the actress Clairon, a smartly written role strongly sung by mezzo-soprano Victoria Fox.

Soprano Diana McVey had the opera's most sympathetic role as the Countess, who is unable to chose between her two suitors or their two art forms.

McVey embodied a dignity that isn't chilly, and a sincerity that can still admit humor. The role's moderately high tessitura was no problem for her. Although she weakened somewhat in the 20-minute final scene, when her voiced broadened, McVey's Countess was a high point of the production.

Gregory Lehane, professor of drama and music at Carnegie Mellon University, provided the astute staging. The nonverbal reactions of the cast — a lifted eyebrow here, a glance, a slight smile there — provided extra dimension to the characters.

The set by Christine Lee Won used five rotating triangular columns, which were turned for the final scene to produce a room of mirrors, no doubt a nod to the Palace of Versailles.

Summerfest's production employed a fine new reduced orchestration by Braden Toan for 21 instrumentalists, sanctioned by the Strauss estate. Both harpsichord and harp were played on an electric keyboard, but the harp sound was just a bit too loud and definitely too thick on the bottom.

McMunn's affinity for Strauss' music was as impressive as it had been in “Ariadne.” His beat was clear and flexible, serving both the broad strokes and nuances of this inspired score.

The orchestra played very well, testimony to both McMunn's rehearsal skills and the musicians' careful preparation of their demanding parts. The solo work of concertmaster Jason Neukom and first horn Jason Allison was on a very high level, apart from a few slips by each.

Summerfest's production of “Capriccio” will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. July 31 and 2 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. Admission is $25 to $75. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org

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

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