Richard Strauss' final opera,


dares to be about nothing but itself - no social critique, no religious apotheosis - but allegorical characters thrashing over why the lyric theater is important. And in doing so, it goes to the heart of why we're all in the theater, or at least some of us, at the annual Curtis Opera Theater/Opera Philadelphia collaboration that's copresented by the Kimmel Center.

The 21/2-hour intermissionless opera had an undercurrent of audience chatter Wednesday at the Perelman Theater - suggesting some listeners didn't know what they were getting into. Having decided he was writing his last opera, Strauss clearly didn't want to end. And the production didn't always know how best to present this conversation about heartfelt theatrical priorities that bring opera into being and connect to elemental human needs.

The refined denizens of an 18th-century villa - a poet, a composer, a famous actress, a spectacle-obsessed producer, hosted by fashionably minor royalty - decide to create an opera about themselves. It might seem terribly affected were it not for comic intrusions from drunken singers and cranky servants.

The opera gleefully breaks many of the rules its characters champion. Musical flow is interrupted by patches of spoken dialogue. New characters are introduced in the last half hour. And the opera itself reaches no particular conclusion, but with some of the most unfiltered emotionalism in any Strauss opera.

Many of the characters must establish themselves as part of the larger ensemble; the opera's few arias are monologues of such length that they're challenging to sustain. It's a lot to ask of a young cast, even one as well-prepared as this one from the Curtis Institute.

Some of the characters that are least likely to succeed fared the best, such the playboy Count, sung with particularly animated text projection and distinctively rich tone by recent Curtis graduate Jarrett Ott (recently of Cold Mountain).

Evan Leroy Johnson had some fine moments as the composer Flamand. And though Tyler Zimmerman only scratched the surface of the producer La Roche, he scratched well and kept his climactic monologue theatrically afloat. Among the minor roles, the gem is Taupe - a sleepy opera prompter who wakes up after everybody is gone - sung by James McCorkle with perfectly understated comic charm.

The heart of the opera is the Countess, a symbolic muse who must decide between two suitors - the composer and the poet. Her part was sung Wednesday by Kristen MacKinnon with an ideal middleweight Straussian vocal tone, wonderfully confiding pianissimos, and theatrical authority in a performance I'd take over Renée Fleming any day.

The score's through-composed nature needs to be kept on a short leash, and conductor Timothy Myers didn't always do so, in a performance that alternately surged and stalled. The modern-dress production directed by Chas Rader-Shieber was tastefully beige from furniture to costumes, but with puzzling touches, such as piles of trash and wreckage along the sides of the stage.

In the thick of the great final scene - one of the best in all of Strauss - came a coup de théâtre (the rear curtain fell and something resembling a rock wall appeared) that served little purpose other than stealing focus from singer and music.

Performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m Sunday at the Kimmel. Information: 215-732-8400,