A production remembered

The Sextet from Capriccio

A production remembered

By Milena Mc Closkey 01 February 2016


© Christophe Pelé / OnP

The Sextet from Capriccio

The spectators are still taking their seats when the servants of the Countess Madeleine appear on stage, followed by the six musicians and a young composer. The sextet take their places, take off their hats and coats and begin to play…

From the pit to the stage

Laurent Verney (L.V.): Before taking part in the premier of this production of Capriccio in 2004, I had already tackled the work in the pit, in Johannes Schaaf’s 1993 production, conducted by Peter Schneider. Robert Carsen’s idea is brilliant compared to previous productions: he couldn’t imagine leaving the stage bare throughout the sextet and decided to bring the performers up from the pit onto the stage. It wasn’t just a question of filling up a musical introduction that would be too long for modern audiences without a visual dimension, but also of bringing all the elements of theatre into play by integrating us fully into the production.

Diederik Suys (D.S.): During the first performance, I didn’t feel apprehensive at the idea of being directed by a conductor and a director. Robert Carsen is both imperious and delicate; it was a marvelous adventure.

L.V.: It’s not just a matter of coming on and playing, everything has been rehearsed down to the last detail. Our entrance is like a pantomime: although we’ve known the Palais Garnier for years, we have to act our amazement at finding ourselves in such a beautiful theatre, getting ready to play, following the composer’s instructions etc. We are transported into 1942, the time and space of the production - suits, lacquered hair etc. Theatrical disguise, which isn’t usually part of our work, has been pushed to its limits: even Vanessa is costumed: she wears a hat and has a moustache!

Frédéric Laroque (F.L.): In becoming actors, we’ve experienced a delicious double paradox: we play a group of musicians who present themselves at the Countess’s chateau to sight-read a piece, whereas, in our job it would obviously be unthinkable to sight-read any work, whatever it is, in a concert. In addition, we generally accompany singers; this time, we are the ones to be accompanied, in the second half of our piece, by Flamand, the composer.

Vanessa Jean (V.J.): Being on stage alongside the singers is a breath of fresh air, and very stimulating, compared to what we usually do. Frédéric and I have also been lucky enough to share the stage this season with dancers from the Ballet during Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s production, Bartok/Beethoven/Schönberg. She wanted the performers of her choreography on Bartok’s 4th Quartet and the musicians to confront each other on stage. In that instance and in the sextet from Capriccio, this confrontation creates a direct link needing no intermediary, whether it’s a conductor or the distance imposed by the pit. An intoxicating communion is created between us and the other performers. One of the dancers from the Bartok quartet, Camille de Bellefon, is also with us in Capriccio.

F.L.: For a Paris Opera musician, being on stage is something rare and precious. It also opens up a whole new dimension of operatic performance: the visual aspect and not merely the sound. To experience the interaction of the protagonists directly and at close proximity is something we miss in the pit.

L.V.: Our presence on stage is a fabulous idea because it gives us a better understanding of the relationship between the characters of Flamand, the composer, and Olivier, the poet. The sextet is the starting point for the debate running through the entire opera as to what kind of performance will be given to celebrate the Countess’s birthday, and which of the arts is really the most important – music, poetry or theatre.

Les musiciens du sextuor et Benjamin Bernheim (Flamand)
Les musiciens du sextuor et Benjamin Bernheim (Flamand) © Vincent Pontet / OnP

The sextet – bittersweet and timeless

F.L.: The musical composition of the sextet occupies a singular place within the work as a whole: compared to the rest of the opera it is a relatively classical score. In Capriccio, Strauss allowed himself some extremely tortuous harmonic progressions, which nourish the controversy running through the opera. However, the opening sextet is much more tonal, romantic, almost frivolous compared to everything that follows.

L.V.: This tonal writing reminds me of German post-romantic music of the end of the 19th century. In 1905, Strauss composed Salomé and Elektra, both of which are much more modern, distancing the composer from the Wagnerian universe characteristic of his earlier work. Almost forty years later, why did Strauss draw on his earlier influences? I firmly believe that he composed this music to try and blot out the events of 1942. I see Capriccio, and this sextet in particular, as a lollipop, a cocoon in which to take refuge from the outside world. One feels very comfortable in this music.

D.S.: Had it not been for the war, would he have written the same thing? We will never know. In my opinion, Capriccio is the expression of the questions preoccupying Strauss even before the war broke out. “What is the future of opera?” “Where are we going?” Strauss shows us the way forward in a remarkable manner by composing an opera about opera. To place a theatre director on stage is, after all, quite a daring move. The sweetness of Capriccio does not lack piquancy. 

Jean Ferry (J.F.): The sextet stands out from the rest of Capriccio just as the opera as a whole contrasts with the rest of Strauss’s oeuvre. Many music lovers are completely mystified by this opera, finding it incongruous in the context of the composer’s musical evolution. Capriccio seems like a retrograde step, a complete break with what preceded it, which was much more violent. At a time when many of his contemporaries were flouting convention, breaking loose from the chains of tonality, Strauss returns to something more harmonious. Was it to please the regime in power?

D.S.: Had it not been for the war, would he have written the same thing? We will never know. In my opinion, Capriccio is the expression of the questions preoccupying Strauss even before the war broke out. “What is the future of opera?” “Where are we going?” Strauss shows us the way forward in a remarkable manner by composing an opera about opera. To place a theatre director on stage is, after all, quite a daring move. The sweetness of Capriccio does not lack piquancy.

No mere caprice

L.V.: With Clemens Krauss, Strauss wrote a libretto without a story, to such an extent that Capriccio makes me think of a film scenario or filmed theatre: I don’t know many operas in which the plot unfolds in a huis clos and almost entirely in real time. The development of the intrigue is based entirely on conversation: this seemingly light-hearted badinage is very 18th century. One is reminded of Marivaux’s Jeu de l’amour et du hasard.

F.L.: Yes, Capriccio is, to my mind, a falsely naïve artistic gesture. Strauss decided to resist the barbarism that surrounded him and dug his heels in – “capriccio” in Italian can also be translated as ‘stubbornness’ – remaining light-hearted whilst also making a stand in relation to the musical tradition he represents: an almost anti-Wagner position as regards the vocabulary and musical devices used as he does not seek to be grandiose.

V.J.: The orchestration is also in counterpoint to the fashion of the time. For example, there are numerous instrumental conversations reminiscent of chamber music. Indeed, the opening sextet may be considered as a piece of chamber music as it can also be played on its own: we have all performed it as a piece in its own right.

Giorgi Kharadzé (G.K.): On the other hand, in Strauss’s chamber music one finds a highly orchestral structure with a vertical musical language, the scoring varying to create dynamics and a fragmented quality reminiscent of Beethoven. I’m referring to the Cello Sonata and the Piano Quartet, for example. The thoroughly orchestral sweep of sound in the Sextet, however, is considerably more sensual.

© Christophe Pelé / OnP

In the beginning was the music, or the word?

G.K.: Music gives me stronger sensations than what’s happening on stage. For me, it’s a language in its own right and, as a musician, it’s the language I’m most at home with. In this business, we are here to serve the composer and we constantly try to get as close as possible to the emotions he was trying to convey. In the case of the great composers, we can only imagine what was in their minds and that’s why we develop a degree of sensitivity to the music which is even greater than our sensitivity to words.

F.L.: For us, musical discourse is so profoundly integrated that the language of an opera is above all a musical discourse to which words, sonnets, speeches have been added…

D.S.: The truth of what Giorgi has just said can be fully appreciated if you imagine an opera performance without surtitles. It’s rare to find singers whose diction is such that you can distinguish every word. It’s because they are singing and the music is inextricably linked to the drama that we understand what they are singing about with ease.

V.J.: On the other hand, I think that the music is all the more moving when we understand exactly what the singer is saying. It is also useful in our work since we are lucky enough to play a work several times. We are not there merely to play the notes: an operatic production is a voyage for us too, and an understanding of the libretto helps us find our way during successive performances. When the poetry of a particular passage in the libretto is revealed, it sheds light on the path we must follow.

J.F.: Yes, we would lose a lot if the music were partitioned off from the text. Conductors draw on the libretto and on what is happening on stage to feed us with images that can help us to play differently, in a way that is “right”. The traditional dynamic markings, piano and forte, are not enough to convey the truth of a piece of music.

L.V.: Philippe Jordan, for example, delights in telling us stories.

G.K.: It is true that words complete and consolidate our understanding of the work.

D.S.: It works the other way round too. Take cinema: Star Wars would be nothing without the music!

Interviewed by Milena MC CLOSKEY

Frédéric Laroque is First Violin Solo in the Paris Opera Orchestra, Vanessa Jean is Second Lead Violinist in the Paris Opera Orchestra, Laurent Verney is First Viola Solo in the Paris Opera Orchestra, Diederik Suys is Second Viola Solo in the Paris Opera Orchestra, Giorgi Kharadzé is Second Cello Solo in the Paris Opera Orchestra and Jean Ferry is Third Cello Solo in the Paris Opera Orchestra.    

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