“Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, his last opera and a summation of his lifelong love affair with the soprano voice, is usually thought of in this country as a “connoisseur’s” opera, a rarefied conversation piece. In it, a group of theatricals meet at the country castle of a beautiful countess to discuss the aesthetics of the theatre and opera. It was first staged in the UK at Glyndebourne as a star vehicle for the wonderful Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom in the 1960s, and later for Felicity Lott. The intimacy of the setting and the esoteric subject matter should be perfect for Garsington Opera when Tim Albery’s staging, first seen at Santa Fe Opera two years ago, opens this week with another Swedish Countess Madeleine.
“Well, I was asked a couple of years ago in Sweden to look at the role and see if I wanted to do it — so I had a little sniff at it, thinking it might be a route to Strauss’s Marschallin or Arabella. But then they had to cancel it, so I was thrilled when Garsington asked me to do it.”
Persson has made several appearances at Glyndebourne since Fiordiligi in 2006 — Anne Trulove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in 2010; Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Governess in The Turn of the Screw in 2011 — but tries to keep her summers free as much as possible. That’s even though she and her family — her husband, the British tenor Jeremy Ovenden, and their daughter and son — live just down the road in Lewes.
“I tend not to work in the summer because I want to be with the kids. It’s only four years until my daughter will be away, so I’m thinking I have to make the most of our time now.”
In Strauss’s libretto — which he wrote with the conductor Clemens Krauss — the Countess is the muse and beloved of both Olivier, the poet, and Flamand, the composer, whom she instructs to write an opera after long discussions about the aesthetics of the genre and the relative importance of words and music therein. Using an idea of Stefan Zweig’s — he was Strauss’s librettist for Die schweigsame Frau, which was banned in Germany after Hitler refused to attend the Dresden premiere in 1935 — the librettists wove a love story into their conversation piece, but left the denouement ambiguous.
In one of the composer’s most beautiful monologues for the soprano voice, Madeleine — for Strauss, the personification of opera — finds herself unable to choose between the passionate, inspirational composer and the handsome, more earthbound poet, reflecting Strauss’s own dilemma about the primacy of words or music. Persson is fascinated both by the psychology and the music of the role.
“She is a complex character — I don’t think she knows herself what she wants — and it’s a big sing before you even get to the final monologue. I wouldn’t sing her at the [New York] Met, but there are plenty of smaller opera houses, like this one, which are perfect for me. It’s a tremendously interesting part both from the musical and acting point of view.”
Persson is 49 today. Having delighted us in her youth with her beautiful stage persona and shining lyrical timbre (often reminiscent of the great Slovak soprano Lucia Popp, whose career path she has followed), she can look back on the 20 years since her debut as Susanna in Sweden’s Confidencen, a tiny rococo opera house.
I remark that Capriccio has become controversial, especially in Germany, because Strauss conceived and wrote it while his country was falling apart under the Nazis. He buried himself in the past — the opera’s original setting is early to mid-18th century; the characters discuss Rameau and Couperin as “new” music — and filled his score with rococo pastiche.
“Wasn’t that the reason he chose this subject? He wanted to escape from reality. In his complexity, there is also simplicity. The music changes pace seamlessly. It’s his love affair with music. As complex as it is, it’s a hand-crafted, personal piece — all his love of music, the theatre, singers, actors, dancers, it’s all in there. Nothing happens in Capriccio by chance.”
Her “supporting” cast includes Andrew Shore — with whom she has worked before — as the theatre director and impresario La Roche, William Dazeley as her brother, the Count, and Sam Furness and Gavan Ring as her youthful composer and poet admirers.
“They [the lovers] are so different in personality, and actually that makes it more difficult to choose between them,” she laughs. “I think she really wants a combination of both of them. If you choose one, you lose the other, but who knows?”
The ending is left deliberately open and enigmatic. It finishes with a question — how to find an ending for the opera that isn’t trivial — that is really never answered. Persson admits she has contemplated giving up opera completely, but then remarks that she still has a long wish list, including, surprisingly perhaps, Micaela in Carmen, Blanche in Poulenc’s Carmélites and, of course, the Rosenkavalier Marschallin.
“Where I am now, I can relate to everything in my characters with my experience of life. I hope there are still many roles to look forward to.”
Her many admirers will echo that sentiment.”
Hugh Canning, The Times, 27 May 2018
“The Swedish soprano is at the top of her game and supplies a sensational performance as the lovely aristocrat undecided between words and music as personified by her rival wooers”
Oxford Times, 7 June 2018