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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Opera Review: Inside the Haus of Strauss

Intermezzo at City Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

"I don't give a damn."--Pauline Strauss, on learning that her husband's 1924 opera was based on their home life.
Frau Strauss on Ice: Mary Dunleavy and Andrew Bidlack in Intermezzo
Photo by 
Carol Rosegg © 2010 New York City Opera
Richard Strauss was not shy about his personal life. The composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Also Sprach Zarathustra wrote a number of compositions about his tumultuous marriage to Pauline de Ahna. The most detailed of these is his 1924 opera Intermezzo, currently enjoying a welcome revival by the New York City Opera.

Intermezzo re-tells a real incident in this famous marriage. Richard (here re-named Robert Storch) is depicted as the professional conductor, forced to live in Vienna for several months to meet his concert obligations. Pauline (here, Christine) is the former opera singer who runs the household with an iron will. She has a brief flirtation with young nobleman, and nearly divorces Richard, (sorry, Robert!) when a misdirected letter (intended for another conductor named Stroh) arrives at their household. All ends happily as husband and wife sing a twenty-five minute duet in which they sound out all their problems in full Straussian sound.

Mary Dunleavy brings luminous power to the taxing role of Christine Storch. She is onstage for (almost) the entire evening. To create a three-dimensional portrait, the singer has to switch on a dime from sweet singing, to shrill rage, to raw emotion. (There's even spoken dialogue, adding to the challenge.) Ms. Dunleavy rose admirably to the occasion, portraying the many facets of Christine's mercurial personality, and having enough voice left over for the difficult, high-lying passages in the final duet.

As Robert Storch,  Nicholas Pallesen made a strong impression, adding warmth and understanding to a somewhat emotionless character. He dominated the second act, singing with notable emotion in the card table scene and the meeting with Stroh (Erik Nelson Werner) on a stormy Vienna street. In the final duet with Ms. Dunleavy, this young baritone sang the high-lying part with a sweet, warm tone and real affection in his voice.

Tenor Andrew Bidlack makes a good impression as the callow Baron Lummer, Christine's brief love interest. The dancers, extras, and technical crew cope admirably with the opera's rapid-fire set changes, all done with the curtain up. The four-man crew of dancers masqueraded as skating waiters and valets, transforming the City Opera stage into a gambling parlor, a lawyer's office, an ice rink and the Strauss home. The most miraculous moment comes in the first act, when the stage becomes a mountainside with actual skiers schussing into the wings.

This production uses an admirable Andrew Porter translation of the libretto, performing the work in English with supertitles. However, certain German phrases ("sympathie," "gnäd'ge Frau") are left intact, adding a Bavarian flavor to the proceedings and making those passages easier to sing. In the pit, George Manahan took the City Opera Orchestra to the next level, playing this complicated score (which also quotes from other Strauss operas) with flair and rhythmic drive.

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