Fleming, Connolly; Kaiser, Larsen, Braun, P. Rose; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, A. Davis. Production: Cox. Decca B0016196-09 (2 DVDs) or B0016196-59BD (Blu-ray), 149 mins., subtitled
Richard Strauss's valedictory opera, with a text by conductor Clemens Krauss, is a high-concept "conversation piece." A group of artists in the salon of lovely, widowed Countess Madeleine discuss opera's eternal question — "words versus music" — in the last years of France's ancien régime. The battle is reinforced by the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand, the two suitors who are vying for Madeleine's favor. Assuredly an odd piece for Strauss to have unleashed on the world in 1942, it requires stylish treatment and moment-to-moment comprehension. Home listening or viewing is the best way to encounter it initially. Talky it is, but there are wonderful stretches musically — the introductory string sextet, Flamand's improvised song, some delightful ensembles and above all the shimmeringly beautiful "moonlight music" leading to a soaring, echt Straussian final monologue for the Countess.
The Met's HD broadcast of April 23, 2011, furnishes a new home-viewing option: it is the first available in Blu-ray format as well as DVD. Led capably by Andrew Davis and centered around Renée Fleming, it's a pleasing though not definitive choice. Fleming looks very attractive — the newly commissioned spangly final gown notwithstanding — but in close-up her acting can seem over-indicated and not exactly aristocratic. Some by now trademark scooping marks her singing, but the final twenty minutes are duly glorious — the kind of soaring vocalism for which Fleming was born.
Sarah Connolly is incisive and amusing as the actress Clairon, though her voice lacks the beauty of her competitors on CD releases of the opera, and she's less magical verbally than Anne Sofie von Otter on TDK's Paris DVD. Two accomplished Canadian singers, Joseph Kaiser (Flamand) and Russell Braun (Olivier), play the creative suitors, and both give commendable, detailed performances. Kaiser has more youthful panache, the ardent Braun more nuanced German. Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen looks terrific and sounds absolutely ordinary as the Count. As the theater director La Roche, Peter Rose — a good bass, if no Hotter or Ridderbusch — rises to his great monologue and is thoroughly entertaining. Strauss's caricatured Italian Singers are entrusted properly to capable leading singers, Olga Makarina and Barry Banks. Joyce DiDonato (surely a future Clairon) is the gracious HD host, discussing Strauss with Fleming.
I rather prefer Fleming's work in the interesting Robert Carsen Paris set, which also stars Rainer Trost and Gerald Finley as strong contenders. Early in his career, Davis led the best filmed version yet of this delicate opera, from Glyndebourne in 1976, with the unforgettable Elisabeth Söderström as Madeleine, but that stunning Capriccio has never seen commercial release.