Review: Santa Fe Opera Makes the Case for “Capriccio”- July 27, 2016

Richard Strauss’ 74-year old opera’ “Capriccio”, composed under the skeptical eye of a totalitarian Nazi regime, is a delicate piece that requires an extraordinary cast of singing actors, a stylish production, and a conductor and orchestra that can do justice to Strauss’ highly dramatic, lushly romantic score.

The Santa Fe Opera, whose early reputation was built on performing Strauss’ lesser known works, including “Capriccio’s” American premiere, mounted an attractive new production by British director Tim Albery.

Amanda Majeski’s Countess Madeleine

In the lead role of Countess Madeleine, Illinois soprano Amanda Majeski provided the vocal power required to complement Strauss’s soaring melodies and the elegance appropriate for the gentler music of Madeleine’s introspective moments.

As the socially graceful, intellectual leader of an artistic salon, Madeleine is central to every scene of the opera.  The role’s challenge is to retain interest through the scenes she dominates. Unlike virtually every other operatic role, Countess Madeleine is always in control of her emotions as she engages in esoteric conversations on whether the words or music in opera are the more important.

[Below: Soprano Amanda Majeski as the Countess Madeleine; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Typically, when this operatic rarity is revived, the role of Madeleine is assayed by a reigning operatic celebrity.  Two such operatic “divas” whose performances I attended, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and soprano Renee Fleming [see Review: Renée Fleming’s Reverential “Capriccio” at Lyric Opera – Chicago, October 28, 2014], were popular, well-known stars in mid- or late career. Both approached the part with a self-assuredness that a member of the 18th century Austrian nobility was expected to have.

Majeski (for whose surprise breakout performance as the Countess Rosina in a Lyric Opera production I was fortunate to be a reviewer [See Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010]) is a rising star, who has become a sought after artist. If she does not presently have the celebrity status of a Te Kanawa or Fleming, she brings a youthfulness to the role of this rich and powerful woman that is yet another reason Madeleine is ardently pursued by two young men.

David Govertsen’s La Roche

Illinois bass-baritone David Govertsen was impressive as the theatrical impresario who dismisses the idea that either words or music are superior in opera. A graduate of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center for young artists, playing La Roche in Santa Fe is one of Govertsen’s most important career assignments to date.

[Below: Bass-baritone David Govertsen as La Roche; edited image of a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Govertsen had attracted interest in the comprimario role of the Banker in Santa Fe Opera’s 2014 production of Mozart’s “Impresario” and had performed the part of the Major Domo to Renee Fleming’s Countess Madeleine in the Chicago Lyric production of “Capriccio” noted above. In the Lyric Opera “Capriccio” run, he was called upon to replace an ailing colleague as La Roche. For Santa Fe Opera he was chosen to replace the originally announced LaRoche, Eric Owens, for all five performances.

Ben Bliss’ Flamand 

Kansas tenor Ben Bliss’ sweet lyric tenor graced the part of Flamand, who represents one of Madeleine’s two suitors, both as man and as metaphor for an opera’s music.

[Below: Tenor Ben Bliss as Flamand; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


This was my first time attending a Bliss performance. A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists’ program, Bliss obviously has a promising career as an operatic lyric tenor ahead of him.

Joshua Hopkins’ Olivier

“Capriccio’s” other man/metaphor role, Olivier, who represents an opera’s lyrics, was admirably sung by Canadian lyric baritone Joshua Hopkins. A graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Hopkins is a veteran of last season’s assignment for Director Albery [see Review: “La Finta Giardiniera”: Madcap Mozart at the Santa Fe Opera – July 29, 2015.]

[Below: Baritone Joshua Hopkins as Olivier; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Susan Graham’s Clarion and Craig Verm’s Count

The show’s “star power” was provided by New Mexico mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the role of  Clairon, a stage actress who had previously been romantically pursued by Olivier and who now was the object of attraction of Countess Madeleine’s brother, the Count.

Graham was mesmerizing in a part that enlisted both her sultry mezzo and her prowess as an actor – yet another triumphant performance from this operatic super-star [see Return to New Mexico: An Interview with Susan Graham.]

[Below: Clairon (Susan Graham, left), the Count (Craig Verm, center) and the Countess Madeleine (Amanda Majeski, right) observe the goings on in the salon; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Texas baritone Craig Verm, whose eyecatching performance as Sonora in the Santa Fe Opera’s opening night production [see Review: Impressive, Compelling – “Girl of the Golden West” at Santa Fe Opera, July 1, 2016] made much of a small role, was even more effective in the much larger role of the Count.

Shelley Jackson’s and Galeano Salas’ Italian Singers

Much of the interest in a “Capriccio” performance takes place after the appearance of two Italian singers hired as entertainment (and for additional commentary on opera by the characters in Madeleine’s salon).

The Italian Singer duets were nicely performed by Virginia soprano Shelley Jackson and Texas tenor (and Santa Fe Apprentice Artist) Galeano Salas. Both take part along with the six principal artists in the first two of “Capriccio’s” three comic octets, which are among Strauss’ most inventive operatic ensembles.

[Below: Shelley Jackson (left) and Galeano Salas (right) as the Italian singers; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


I was fortunate to have reviewed Jackson’s unexpected debut as a Santa Fe Opera principal artist, starring as Norina [Review: Ovations for Laurent Pelly’s Daffy “Don Pasquale” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2014] in the first night of a new production. Currently part of Zurich Oper’s international young artists’ program, her success as Santa Fe Opera’s Norina demonstrated how deep the talent is within opera’s young artists programs.

Alan Glassman’s Taupe, Adrian Smith’s Major Domo and the Eight Servants

The role of the prompter Taupe was sung with charm by the invaluable New York character tenor Alan Glassman. North Carolina bass-baritone Adrian Smith, an Apprentice Artist who has assignments in four of the Santa Fe season’s five operas, was the Major Domo.

[Below: the Major Domo (Adrian Smith, right), attempts to figure out what to do with the prompter Monsieur Taupe (Alan Glassman, left) who had fallen asleep and missed a ride back to Paris; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


None of the ten artists mentioned above participated in the lively third octet of the evening, this being performed by eight of the Count’s servants.

This amusing servant’s octet was performed with distinction by Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists Tennessee baritone Nicholas Davis, Pennsylvania tenor Peter Scott Drackley,  Iowa baritone Thaddeus Ennen, New Hampshire bass James Harrington, Utah tenor Andrew Marks Maughan, California tenor John Matthew Myers, Virginia baritone Andrew Paulson and Pennsylvania tenor Benjamin Werley.

[Below: from left to right Flamand (Ben Bliss, standing), the Count (Craig Verm, seated) and the Countess Madeleine are the audience for a string sextet; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The Orchestral Performance and Scenic Design

British conductor Leo Hussain led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, which performed brilliantly. The sets and costumes by German designer Tobias Hoheisel evoked a modern suite of rooms whose center elicited an 18th century French salon. New Yorker Jodi Melnick was choreographer.


“Capriccio” is a favorite of connoisseurs of the later operas of Richard Strauss, and this production and cast should delight them. Those curious about an opera that has always been a rarity, but on the fence as whether to attend one of the remaining Santa Fe Opera performances, should not assume that live performances of this work will be easily found elsewhere.

For those who do attend, one should give thought to and respect the stressful environment – in which the Nazi artistic censorship stood ready to interfere with or veto any artistic endeavor – under which composer Strauss and librettist/conductor Clemens Kraus produced this inoffensively escapist, metaphorical work.