To counter Victoria’s whinging that Opera Australia sends down only tired productions with second-rate singers, the national company opened its new version of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio in Melbourne with an all-star cast on May 2.  

Strauss had conceived Capriccio as a conversation piece for connoisseurs, ringing the changes on whether poetry takes priority over music. The occasion is a birthday celebration for a Countess, as a writer and a composer vie for her love.

As ever, Richard Strauss attempted too much out of too little. Yet, by his fifteenth and final opera, craft overcame coarseness with a whimsical score and raffish text. If the content is caviar to the million, resolution of the debate is homely. When the Countess asks herself ‘Is there any ending that is not trivial?, her butler responds “Supper is served’. Curtain.

Beginning and closing as chamber music, Capriccio’s intimacies are endangered in a 2000-seat theatre. Opera Australia’s production is burdened with an interval so that a confection which should be enjoyed in two hours is spun out for three. Worse, the first Act is stranded as a talk-shop, short on dramatic and musical interest.

Being able to follow the dialogue is vital if the want of action is not to prove tedious. Capriccio should therefore be in the language of the audience. Instead, it is in German with surtitles.

John Cox’s direction moved the setting from the 1780s to the 1930s for no advantage and at the risk of rending its rococo texture. Apart from some snide references to Strauss’s own operas, none of the composers named in Capriccio is more recent than Piccinni who died in 1800. If you modernise the furnishings and fashions, why not update the text to include Puccini or Lehar? That adjustment would mean rewriting the musical jokes.

Despite nice touches, such as the Countess’s wagging her finger at herself in the mirror, the stage business needs more froth and less furniture. A revolve cannot overcome the fact that the principals do little beyond philosophise.

All these reservations are forgotten once Conal Coad explodes with his fury aria, all the more effective because his depiction of the vulgar impresario had been restrained. Angus Wood as the poet displayed how his baritone is growing richer. In the role of the composer, Nicholai Schukoff’s tenor remains a shade shy of the lyric. Jeffrey Black as the Count was appropriately ham-fisted in his acting which did not  infect the beauties of his love song.

Yvonne Kenny’s presentation of the Countess-cum-Muse was more matronly than her voice was mellifluous before she fulfilled Strauss’s on-stage passion for the soprano voice in the extended solo scene that concludes the work. Elizabeth Campbell as the actress was vivacious in body and voice.

Jamie Allen and Joanna Cole as the Italian singing duet sustained humour in the face of the indignities of the hired help. Among the cameo parts, Graeme Ewer was perfection as the narcoleptic theatre prompt.

In the pit, Gustav Kuhn kept to the balance between accompanying the conversation and blaring forth only when the Strauss score calls for that self-mocking effect. The raggedness of the Victorian State Orchestra has disappeared, a return to quality nowhere more so than in the horn playing.

Sex suffuses Capriccio as thoroughly as it had Strauss’s  Salome but here it is more is on the surface, in the manner of Mozart’s Cosi. Incest between text and tone is mirrored in the Count and Countess as brother and sister. Around that coupling is serialised group sex. The actress who goes off with the Count had once been mistress of the poet who is last seen embracing the composer who is still his rival for the favours of the Countess. The sozzled soprano cannot keep her paws off the director. Small wonder that that propagandist for family values, Dr Goebbels, called Strauss a ‘neurotic degenerate’.

[Capriccio continues in Melbourne until May 13, and opens in Sydney in August.]