The opera asks: Which comes first, the words or the music? The Countess must decide between suitors who are a poet and a composer. An impresario states his case for how he brings music and words to life on stage; actors play their roles, and for fun, Strauss introduces caricatures of two Italian singers and two dancers to show how theater works - and plays - and how creativity emerges and illusion and reality coexist.
For this sophisticated comedy, Strauss wrote music to ennoble the Countess and to mock and magnify the impresario. He also works some magic by setting a sonnet to music.
Strauss quotes some of his earlier pieces, not because of waning inspiration but to illustrate opera's continuity. The monologues for the Countess and the impresario, the wild octet, and the deeply felt scenes for poet and composer may have closed the curtain on opera's 300-year-old tradition.
By setting this production in the 1920s in Paris instead of the 18th century as Strauss envisioned it, producer John Cox ruffled many feathers. The opera often refers to 18th-century composers Gluck and Rameau as contemporary and controversial. Yet the Met's setting suggests the '20s as the last time any such discussion might have taken place among the wealthy. It was a time of elegant dress and artistic enthusiasms, a mixing of dilettantes and artists, so why not the '20s?
Andrew Davis conducted this opening with a sure hand. The subtle writing for strings, the layering of colors, and the importance of reference all emerged with clarity and theatrical vigor.
Against that evocative musical tapestry, Kiri Te Kanawa sketched, then deepened her role as aesthetic judge, but also as woman of feeling and wit. Her monologue, sung while looking into a mirror - the audience - may count as one of her finest achievements in any opera. Her audience seemed awed - and then delirious.
Jan-Hendrik Rootering, the impresario LaRoche, built his role from comedy through passion in his big scene explaining theater. David Kuebler, as the composer Flamand, and Simon Keenlyside, as the poet Olivier, fit their clear voices into scenes of intricate beauty.
The production included broad comedy. The pas de deux by dancers Annemarie Lucania and Peter Di Bonaventura parodied all of ballet's conventions. The Italian singers, Susan Patterson and Bonaventura Bottone, showed how excess and ornate beauty can be sides of the musical coin.
CAPRICCIO Presented by the Metropolitan Opera. Music by Richard Strauss; libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal; conducted by Andrew Davis; produced by John Cox; sets by Mauro Pagano; costumes by Martin Battersby; lighting by Duane Schuler.
The cast includes Kiri Te Kanawa, David Kuebler, Simon Keenlyside, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Kim Josephson, Kathryn Harries and Bernard Fitch.
Additional performances: Today and Friday, Jan. 21, 26, 31, at New York's Lincoln Center. Tickets are $24 to $200. Information: 212-362-6000.