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Strauss revival; Fleming adds charm to the Met's elegant 'Caprioccio'

The relative importance of words vs. music is debated endlessly in Richard Strauss' final opera, "Capriccio," but the answer is never really in doubt.

Certainly not in the elegant revival that opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night, conducted by Andrew Davis and starring Renee Fleming as Countess Madeleine, a widow who is being pursued by both a poet and a composer in 18th-century France. (More performances are scheduled, with the final one April 23, broadcast live on the radio and transmitted in HD to movie theaters around the world.)

First performed in Munich in 1942, the opera has a talky libretto written by the composer himself and his colleague Clemens Krauss. It's subtitled "a conversation piece for music," and that's about it -- there's no plot to speak of, just a series of encounters in a drawing room.

But the music is amazing. In his final years, Strauss reached a new level of refinement in his compositions that's reflected here in the delicate chamber-music orchestrations, the intricate ensembles, the wistful melodies, and the nostalgic allusions to composers of the past.

To be sure, there is something disquieting about Strauss, surrounded by the ugly reality of Nazi Germany at the height of World War II, taking refuge in a distant, imaginary world. But a case can be made that a preoccupation with aesthetics was his way of trying to uphold some basic values of civilization as they were being assailed all around him.

"Capriccio" is not an opera that is ever likely to attain great popularity. It is mostly revived when there is a soprano with sufficient physical and vocal glamour to carry off the title role. That was the case in 1998, when the Met first presented the opera, handsomely staged by John Cox, for Kiri te Kanawa.

Now the same production is being revived for Fleming. Her performance has a grace and charisma that are quite winning, and if her high notes no longer have the fullness and freedom they once did, there is still a melting beauty in her middle register that is especially well-suited to Strauss' melodic line.

The highlight of the opera is the Countess' rhapsodic, 20-minute meditation that concludes the opera. Fleming is at her best here, bringing to life the poignant dilemma of a woman who must choose between two suitors and in doing so pronounce a verdict on their art.

Not that the choice should have been difficult based on the vocal performances of the two men competing for her. Baritone Russell Braun was solid if a bit reticent as the poet Olivier, but tenor Joseph Kaiser as the composer Flamand was in another league, singing with ardent tone and bursting with an irresistible enthusiasm.

Davis, who also conducted 13 years ago, brought warmth and tenderness to his reading of the score. The orchestra responded brilliantly, a couple of sour notes aside.

"Capriccio" is being performed this season with no intermission, which is the way Strauss intended it. That makes for a long sit, nearly 2 1/2 hours, but it's worth it to hear the music unfold uninterrupted.

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