Opera Review – Intermezzo

[This review was recently published at the Opera Britannia website and can be seen there with pictures from the show].

Strauss’s Intermezzo is seldom performed and consequently not particularly widely known. Scottish Opera’s new production (directed by Wolfgang Quetes) is an attempt to rescue the reputation of a difficult and troubling work which, though it has wonderful music throughout, never quite allows us to escape a suspicion that what we are watching is a rather vicious public shaming by the composer of his wife.

In a world in which we are used to watching the inner turmoil of dysfunctional relationships played out on the small screen, it is surprising how shocking it remains for them to be performed before our eyes on the opera stage.

The plot, such as it is, is this. A famous composer (obviously supposed to be Strauss himself) is in a stormy marriage with an untrusting, yet not entirely faithful wife (obviously supposed to be Pauline, Strauss’s wife). Though she has a dalliance with a young student baron who tries his hardest to tap her for money, she reacts hysterically when she wrongly suspects her husband of playing fast and loose with women in Vienna. In the end she discovers that the composer’s virtue is intact and domestic bliss is restored. The opera’s origins came about some 20 years after the real life events in the Strauss household which are described therein. So hot to handle was it at the time that several librettists turned the job down and in the end Strauss was compelled to set his own text.

At the beginning of the production, the stage is dominated by a glorious shimmering representation of The Kiss by Klimt. Our first sight of the couple whose relationship forms the nuts and bolts of the piece is when they are revealed, as the two characters of The Kiss are torn apart, not to be reunited until the final curtain. The opera is a ruthless piece of work and none of the characters which it depicts are particularly pleasant. Christine, the wife of the composer is particularly complex; she is, by turns, flaky, bored, hysterical, bitter, angry and downright unpleasant. She is also therefore a cracking role for a singer to attempt. Soprano Anita Bader faces squarely up to the challenge of a demanding part and, by and large, conquers it bravely. It was the case that she was more at home in the lower part of her register; at the top end there was a danger of things seeming to be a little thin. The narrow tone of the voice was not entirely inappropriate during some of Christine’s louder hysterics, however it was much more difficult to hear what was going on during the more reflective passages. Christine is clearly not supposed to be nice and we are not supposed to have much sympathy for her. Notwithstanding that, the first-night audience took Ms Bader to their hearts and were entranced by her acting.

Playing opposite Ms Bader is Roland Wood as the put-upon composer Robert Storch. Wood brings a fine eloquence to his part and a strong physicality to the stage. Whereas Christine appears always about to crumble, Storch himself is a tower of strength. This strength is evident vocally and Wood shows off a fine palette of vocal colours as the evening progresses. This was particularly evident during the third scene of Act II when Storch has just learned that his wife suspects him of things he hasn’t done. Wood’s silky baritone was wonderful here – crisp enunciation powered by the most emotive singing of the evening. Wood managed to capture perfectly a combination of both outrage and bewilderment as his world fell apart. He possesses a very pleasing richness of tone which was most effective in the reconciliation scene at the end of the piece.

Christine’s love interest Baron Lummer is played by tenor Nicky Spence with bravado and confidence. Having discovered him on a toboggan run she whisks him off to a local inn for some dancing. At this point they were joined by several couples who galumph around the stage in what can only be described as an inelegant fashion. We may not be dealing with the Waltz King but someone needs to teach those dancers how to count to three. In marked contrast to those attempting to dance around him, Spence’s singing was highly polished, precise and refreshing to listen to.

Ultimately, the baron turns out to be little more than a social leech but he has some fine singing to get through before Christine eventually sees through him and sends him packing. Domestically all is being watched by a bunch of sly maids whose contribution is exemplified more by significant looks and exasperated expressions than by anything they are asked to sing. Amongst them, Sarah Redgwick as Anna had a voice which made one want to hear more.

Michel de Souza plays the notary – a lawyer whom Christine approaches with a view to getting a divorce when she mistakenly presumes her husband to be having an affair when she intercepts a missive addressed (entirely incorrectly, as it turns out) to him. Morrison-Allen’s lawyer seemed to be talking sense to a crazy person and his singing was sensible too. Indeed, it was a reasonably well-balanced cast all round with no particular weaknesses.

Down in the pit, an enlarged orchestra was having a ball. In many ways they get the best of the deal with a series of, well, intermezzi which punctuate the piece coming between the 14 scenes. These are glorious miniature tone poems. They contain such interesting expansive music that they are one of the strongest of planks to be laid in any case to be made for a re-appraisal of the work as a whole. Francesco Corti was clearly enjoying conducting a fabulous band making fabulous music. Notwithstanding that, he could do with keeping a lid on things when Ms Bader is singing through her angst in quiet mode rather than her raging manner, particularly in the second half of the Act II. It is fair enough to let the orchestra off the leash between scenes but it does need to be kept a little more in check whilst the singing is progressing, not least because Anita Bader is worth listening to.

Director Wolfgang Quetes makes the best possible case for Intermezzo. The question is, though how shall we judge it? Notwithstanding a fine score and some fine singing, this piece remains one that makes for terribly uncomfortable viewing. It is odd that Scottish Opera have been trying to peddle it to us as a comedy. Strauss himself called it a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes. Some of the pre-publicity interviews have even made a connection with Carry On films, which does seem to be overegging the pudding of expectation. It’s taut, it’s fraught and it’s not very funny at all. Expect melodrama and you won’t be too disappointed. Expect Sid James and Hattie Jacques and you are in for a long glum evening.

Some artists have drawn deeply from their personal experience to produce work of universal significance. (Eliot’s Wasteland is an obvious near contemporaneous work where emotional breakdown led to something far more significant than the personal experience from which it was wrought). Strauss, however, produced something which never managed to leave petty argument behind. It is an insight, if we want an insight, into the peculiarities of his marriage and nothing more. The big question is whether we want to look on at all. The suspicion gradually grows through the evening that Strauss might have been better to book some appointments for both himself and for Pauline with a certain Mr Freud who was also operating in Vienna at the time. Better that than to put all this nasty bickering on stage for us all to see.

The Scottish Justice System has an odd and seldom used verdict in some criminal cases which juries can choose when guilty or not guilty simply won’t do. Scottish Opera has very bravely and very convincingly made the case for Strauss’s work. Notwithstanding the singing, the music, the set and the glorious orchestral interludes, it seems clear to me what the verdict must be in this case. The conclusion has to be that unsatisfying and uniquely Scottish verdict. Not Proven!

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