Renée Fleming (Magdeleine), Anne Sofie von Otter (Clairon), Rainer Trost (Flamand), Dietrich Henschel (The Count), Gerald Finley (Olivier), Franz Hawlata (La Roche), Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, Ulf Schirmer

The DVD from the Opéra National de Paris features the generation’s leading Straussian diva, Renée Fleming, in the role of the Countess. Although she still retains some of the ugly mannerisms that have distorted her earlier performances, most notably an insistence of abandoning the end of phrases in an abrupt manner, her Countess is generously sung in rich creamy voice and has plenty of spirit, also a sex appeal which becomes the character. Her stage presence is glamourous and mesmerizing as well. As Clairon, Anne Sofie von Otter offers her best recorded performance in a Strauss opera. Her mezzo is at its seductive best and her portrayal of a grand charismatic actress is irresistible. Even if one could wish for a more honeyed tenor for the role of Flamand, Rainer Trost delivers his text with absolute clarity and elegance in his easy homogenous lyric tenor. Clear delivery is also a quality of Dietrich Henschel’s Count, but his voice is a bit light for his role and he ends on being overemphatic at times. On the other hand, Gerald Finley’s baritone is smooth, firm and flexible. Unfortunately, Franz Hawlata is impossibly overparted as La Roche. He is uncomfortable with the tessitura and lacks nuance. Ulf Schirmer presents an animated if not particularly detailed account of the score. In his studio recording, the Vienna Philharmonic was able to produce the translucent sound that keeps interest going no matter what. Here the Opéra orchestra is not able to do that, and when things get wrong, such as in La Roche’s long monologue, one feels time slowly passing. Director Robert Carsen sets the action in the 1940’s in an opera house stage. The result is certainly pleasant to the eyes and the actors’ direction is truly admirable. On DVD, some extra filming without an audience has been added in order to make for a sense of story telling.

Felicity Lott (Magdeleine), Iris Vermillion (Clairon), Gregory Kunde (Flamand), Thomas Allen (The Count), Stephan Genz (Olivier), Gunther von Kannen (La Roche), South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Georges Prêtre

George Prêtre’s recording, made live in Mannheim, is above all a passionate performance of Strauss’s charming farewell to opera. The conductor’s flexible handling of the score, faithfully adjusted to fit the different moods of conversation, is this set’s shining quality. Also, his orchestra – less distinct than those in the rival sets – plays con gusto throughout, and the recorded sound judiciously blend singers and instruments. Moreover, the harpsichord available for this performance is by far the best-sounding in the discography. The cast gathered here is also admirably fluent and expressive while keeping a pleasing cantabile quality even in the most complex moments. This is indeed the performance in which the difficult polyphonic ensemble sounds its best. Although Felicity Lott’s fresh-toned days were past, the in-built sophistication of her phrasing, imagination and charm work the magic that only genuine Straussian sopranos can do. Iris Vermillion is in lush voice and creates a sexy impression as Clairon. Gregory Kunde’s Italianate tenor is an interesting idea for Flamand. He offers ardor and variety of tone, if also some overemotional approach to high-lying passages. In top form, Thomas Allen is the most elegant Count in the discography. Gunther von Kannen brings charisma and spirit to his La Roche, but his phrasing tends to be choppy and emphatic. Finally, Stephan Genz is a velvety-toned intelligent but still spontaneous Olivier.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Magdeleine), Tatiana Troyanos (Clairon), David Kuebler (Flamand), Håkan Hagegård (The Count), Simon Keenlyside (Olivier), Victor Braun (La Roche), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Donald Runnicles

The video from the San Francisco Opera features Stephen Lawless’s elegant settings, costumes and stage direction and nobody is as aristocratic and ellegant on stage as Kiri Te Kanawa. Her closing scene is particularly effective in beautiful floating pianissimi and full creamy top notes. Tatiana Troyanos, in her last recorded performance, is also characterful and stylish. Among the men, Simon Keenlyside is the most interesting, with a compact and handsome baritone. David Kuebler lacks some poise as Flamand, but uses the nervousness of his vocal production for dramatic effects. Victor Braun is an effective La Roche, although he lacks the vocal glamour of Ridderbusch. Donald Runnicles has feeling for Strauss and his orchestra sounds more at ease than one would have imagined. It is only a pity that the recorded sound lacks a bit atmosphere and that the edition involves tiny cuts.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Magdeleine), Brigitte Fassbaender (Clairon), Uwe Heilmann (Flamand), Håkan Hagegård (The Count), Olaf Bär (Olivier), Victor von Hallem (La Roche), Wiener Philharmoniker, Ulf Schirmer

All Straussians are indebted to Kiri Te Kanawa’s for her advocacy of Capriccio and many theatres around the world staged it for the first time due to her intervention. Her Countess benefits from her velvety voice and sophisticated musicianship, but the truth is that she is less verbally specific than either Schwarzkopf or Janowitz. Also, the microphone catches here an occasional impurity her soprano would never present some years before. Brigitte Fassbaender is a characterful Clairon, less vocally alluring than either Ludwig or Troyanos, though. Uwe Heilmann is in charming voice and sings ardently as Flamand. Håkan Hagegård is congenial as the Count, but Olaf Bär and Victor von Halem are less interesting, vocally speaking. The Vienna Philharmonic is beautifully recorded and, if Ulf Schirmer’s conducting is accomplished, it lacks personality though.

Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Magdeleine), Trudeliese Schmidt (Clairon), Eberhard Büchner (Flamand), Wolfgang Schöne (The Count), Franz Grundheber (Olivier), Manfred Jungwirth (La Roche), Wiener Philharmoniker, Horst Stein

Horst Stein’s is a live performance and I am sure that the evening in Salzburg (1985) must have been really rewarding. For home listening, it is still an admirable event that a live performance of this most complex score is presented with relatively few flaws. The Vienna Philharmonic is in luscious sound and strings are beautifully recorded. Moreover, Stein is determined to prove that this is beautiful music and produces a large-scale romantic performance. When the orchestra is playing alone (except in the sextett, when it is a bit dim), the recorded sound is very spacious – a bit more focus would even be welcome. However, voices are too prominently recorded, what causes a loss in atmosphere. Balancing pros and cons, Anna Tomowa-Sintow’s Countess is a very positive performance. Her tone is not glamourous and sophisticated as it should be, but she is in creamy voice and responds beautifully to the text throughout the opera. Also, her wide ranging close scene is very emotional and is preferable to the one she recorded for Karajan – even if she does not display her famous floating pianissimi here. Trudeliese Schmidt has the right ideas about Clairon, but her voice is too high for the role. In the key moments, Eberhard Büchner proves to have a ringing lyric tenor – in the rest of the time he is a bit on the white side. Wolfgang Schöne is a pleasing Count, less hammy than his rivals. Franz Grundheber is a reliable Olivier with bright, forceful top notes, but not a particularly engaging one. Although Manfred Jungwirth is characterful, his phrasing could be a bit more accurate and elegant. No offense to the prima donna, but I wonder why Orfeo did not prefer Lucia Popp’s touching and sophisticated Countess from the same production and the same cast in 1987.

Gundula Janowitz (Magdeleine), Tatiana Troyanos (Clairon), Peter Schreier (Flamand), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (The Count), Hermann Prey (Olivier), Karl Ridderbusch (La Roche), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk, Karl Böhm

Karl Böhm makes wonders with the exquisite-sounding Bavarian Radio orchestra – there is such an understanding and purposefulness in his conducting that you really do not need a score to follow – everything IS there. Unfortunately, the recorded sound lacks space and add a hard edge in voices and instruments. I particularly like Tatiana Troyanos’s Clairon – her voice is so beautiful that it is easy to imagine the allure of the actress she is portraying. This is also probably Peter Schreier’s best recorded operatic performance. His voice displays a freedom and ease not usually associated with his vocal production. Both baritones are excellent, but it is a special pleasure to listen to Karl Ridderbusch’s rich and warm-toned bass in a role where his interpretative skills are more in evidence. As for Gundula Janowitz, she is enchanting from note one and utterly musicianly, ingratiaging and witty throughout. Only her top notes can sound hard and the closing scene lacks warmth and involvement.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Magdeleine), Christa Ludwig (Clairon), Nicolai Gedda (Flamand), Eberhard Wächter (The Count), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Olivier), Hans Hotter (La Roche), Philharmonia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch

Although EMI’s CDs have monaural recorded sound, they offer an intimate atmosphere that is perfect for this opera. Moreover, the engineers provide clear and warm sound. The Philharmonia is in top form and Sawallisch’s conducting is natural and undemonstrative. The central question of this opera is far from a challenge to the characterful team of soloists – all of them in splendid voice. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is in her element as the Countess and offers a warm account of the closing scene.