What's irresistibly unusual about this piece -- for which Strauss co-authored the libretto with Clemens Krauss -- is that it debates for two-and-a-half intermissionless hours a topic which remains unresolved at final curtain and is likely to remain so for the rest of recorded time: Which is more important, words or music?
While in some ways part of the ensemble, Fleming is pivotal in this all-talking, not-much-in-the-way-of-action sketch as Madeleine, a widowed countess. She is loved by, and in love with, poet Olivier (Russell Braun) and composer Flamand (Joseph Kaiser) -- and pressed to choose between these embodiments of words and music before the following day passes. Moreover, Madeleine must make up her conflicted mind while listening to several others fervently representing differing points of view, including her brother (Morten Frank Larsen) and director La Roche (Peter Rose, doing wonders with the work's only other aria).
The irony here is that though Strauss is both music-maker and wordsmith for his opus, his composing implies a clear winner in the words-versus-music competition. Sure, the arguments expressed by the characters are strong, but at the end of the day and the play, the music is stronger -- and that enrapturing strength begins immediately with the string septet that serves as the overture.
Throughout, Strauss has fun quoting himself, glancing back to the influence of Christoph Gluck and nicely passing off a Verdi pastiche among other melodic ploys to keep listeners delighted. When, for instance, La Roche mocks the racket orchestras often make, Strauss throws in a quick but high-volume orchestra passage that conductor Andrew Davis makes certain is properly grating. Indeed, Davis is sensitive to all the demands of the amusing score, notably the octet that breaks out when the volatile characters are compelled to talk over one another in vying to make their opinions known.
There are a few deficiencies in the production -- most notably, that the passion Olivier and Flamand declare for Madeleine, and that she returns, isn't quite brought out by any of the three. Perhaps the abiding coolness is partially explained by the libretto, which dwells on the words-music pros and cons at the expense of unbridled ardor, but surely Fleming, Braun, and Kaiser could muster more amorous feelings than they do.
Another little problem is how costumer Robert Perdziola has dressed Fleming. Although everyone else looks hunky-dory -- especially the marvelous sounding mezzo Sarah Connolly as full-of-herself actress Clairon -- Fleming is encumbered by two gowns, one complicated and one Christmas-tree-gaudy, that simply don't work.