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Erin Wall as The Countess in Pacific Opera Victoria's production of Richard Strauss's Capriccio.

Capriccio

  • Pacific Opera Victoria
  • At the Royal Theatre
  • in Victoria on Thursday

Richard Strauss's Capriccio is an opera within an opera on the unlikely and self-conscious subject of opera itself. In the course of what is essentially a 2½-hour conversation about aesthetics, a poet, composer, director, singer, dancers, and even a prompter, dispute the primacy of their particular contributions to a medium where, as one character puts it, "everything ends up as the slave of everything else."

Pacific Opera Victoria's outstanding new production of Capriccio - a version with slimmed-down orchestration by POV's music director Timothy Vernon - illuminates every nuance of this brilliant libretto, written by Strauss and Clemens Krauss in 1939.

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The opera is many things at once: parody, tribute, affectionate farewell, comedy. It is sublimely ironic, and characters and music refer constantly to other operas. The music can be deliberately banal (the interminable gavotte, danced with such elegance by two members of Ballet Victoria), and the comedy is sometimes broad, sometimes subtle. But much is serious, too: There are oblique references to the time in which it was composed and its conservative musical language may have been Strauss's attempt, at the end of his life, to "reverently preserve the old" in the face of so much social, political and artistic change.

There is plenty of paradox in Capriccio, not the least of which is its mockery of theatre's "cheap trickery," when it is, itself, so shamelessly entertaining. In fact it's often hilarious. It may take a while for the opera to establish all its premises, but the whole thing eventually hurtles forward with Fellini-like abandon, peaking in an ensemble scene to beat all ensemble scenes, in which a pair of ballet dancers re-enact the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus; an Italian tenor (Michael Colvin) and his diva (Virginia Hatfield) love and die with perfectly gauged bel canto extravagance and comic timing; and a half dozen characters philosophize, flirt, argue and pontificate in overlapping contrapuntal mayhem.

Robert McQueen's direction was superb. And among an excellent cast of singers, we especially liked bass Brian Bannatyne-Scott's Falstaffian portrayal of the theatre director La Roche, and Kurt Lehmann's smooth tenor and easy posturing as Flamand. Baritone James Westman's Count was just the right side of louche; and soprano Erin Wall was a dignified and expressive Countess.

Vernon led with his usual suppleness and panache. The opening string sextet was exquisite, and the orchestra shifted deftly between styles, capturing that lush, Straussian swirl, even with reduced forces. This Capriccio is a musical treat. It's also the most fun I've ever had at an opera.

Capriccio continues until March 6.

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