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Opera Review: Of Chickens and Eggs

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Apotheosis Opera explores Richard Strauss' Capriccio.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: Of Chickens and Eggs

Friendly rivals: Olivier (Wayne Hu) and Flamand (Joe Palarca) square off in Capriccio.
Photography by Steve Malinski for Apotheosis Opera.

Capriccio, the fifteenth and final opera by Richard Strauss, is usually mounted by a large company (in a too-cavernous house) as a vehicle for a star soprano who wants to add Countess Madeleine to her resumé (presumably to stand next to the Marschallin and Arabella in a gallery of elegant Strauss heroines.) On Thursday night, a scrappy new production by Apotheosis Opera  revealed depth and charm in what is too often dismissed as a supercilious and superficial work.
This work was written by Strauss and collaborator Clemens Krauss in 1942, as Germany slowly tore itself to pieces and the composer retreated from the world.  It is (in its creator's words) a "conversation piece for music", using a frame story to conduct an in-depth exploration of every aspect of the operatic world, from the lofty composers and librettists to the lowly stagehands and even the prompter. For this complex, cerebral show, the close setting of the Teatro del Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue was more than ideal.
Apotheosis kept things simple. They used a witty 1953 translation created for Juilliard, updating and tweaking the text and moving the setting to contemporary New York. Madeleine and her brother the Count were world-weary urban arts patrons, pumping new money into the efforts of the composer Flamand and the writer Olivier, both of whom are her suitors. The Count is interested in Clairon, an actress who is Olivier's ex. All this plotting is pretext for the main action: a discussion of the value and meaning of opera, and which is more important: the music or the words. 
The action (that is, the conversation) took place on a bare stage with a work scaffolding in the rear, populated by black-clad stagehands, either hustling around or taking their break. Characters checked their phones, used laptops, and lounged on IKEA furniture or orange plastic chairs that looked suspiciously like the ones from El Museo's cafe, or sat in a spare window-box that was just a frame, a suggestion of an actual location. This bare-bones approach worked. 
Madeleine is the heart of Capricco, the ur-feminine representation of the perfect meld of words and music. Soprano Bonnie Frauenthal had charm in the early scenes, but her voice turned brittle and steely when forced to climb over Strauss' orchestra. This produced a needle-like tone that hit the notes and nerves, coming across as taut and stressed when placed under pressure. It should be noted that this is a part that most singers attempt later in their career, and there is a reason it is not sung often: Strauss' writing is (as always) demanding and difficult. 
As Flamand, tenor Joe Palarca displayed a sweet tone and an open heart, making him the front-runner in the friendly rivalry for Madeleine's hand. The intense Wayne Hu was no slouch either, although his portrayal of Olivier was a bit cerebral and cold.  Bass-baritone Kofi Hayford was pompous yet wise as the schauspieldirektor LaRoche, missing only a few low notes. Phoebe Haines was Clairon, vain and self-absorbed and yet sharp and perceptive. Finally, baritone Jay Lucas Chacon gave a memorable turn as the cynical Count, the Philistine enemy of art who nonetheless holds the purse-strings.
Standing in the middle of the orchestra, Apotheosis artistic director Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz did an effective job of leading this score, which is packed with references to other composers and Strauss himself. The delicate string textures of the opening (in which the two main themes of the opera wind around a third, representing the love triangle of the plot) were clear and freshly played. The love-scenes dragged a bit in the first half, but the opera picked up once the debates began.
Mr. Jenkins Jaroszewicz' leadership was particularly strong in the long fugal section where Strauss has all the characters lay down their philosophies of art and music. The cast was supplanted here by an Italian Tenor (Thimas Killourby) and Soprano (Michelle Trovato) who added comic value and vocal heft to the proceedings. The show reached a high, rolling boil in the "quarreling octet", which ended only when the Countess' major-domo (Scott Adam Kipnis) marched onstage and called for intermission. "Ffteen minutes! Everyone cool off!" 
Following the interval (in what is essentially the last third of this opera)  Mr. Jenkins Jaroszewicz ably supported the short ensemble of stagehands that reveal what life is really like backstage. Mysterious schattenhaft chords announced  the wonderful little scene with Mr. Taupe, the sonnambulant prompter (played John Ramseyer, the character's name translates as "Mole") and Mr. Kipnis. However, the finale didn't quite gel. The famous Mondscheinmusik was rushed and Madeleine's long final monolog dragged. For a young company mounting just its third production in three years, there's always room for improvement. 

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