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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.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Strauss Project: Intermezzo

Keeping up with the Strausses is the subject of this "bourgeois comedy with music."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"Richard! Go compose!" Pauline and Richard Strauss in a happy moment.
Photo from the Strauss family archive, Richard Strauss-Institut Garmisch-Partkirchen.
"Believe me, I really, really needed my wife. I actu­ally have a lethar­gic tem­pera­ment, and if it were not for Pauline, I shouldn’t have done it all." --Richard Strauss

The home life of the composer Richard Strauss and his longtime wife Pauline is a regular subject of music from the composer's middle period. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pages of his 1927 opera Intermezzo. This work plunges deep into the turbulent waters of the Strauss' long and happy marriage, providing an inside, if biased view of what life was like at a certain villa in Garmisch that, as its owner once boasted, was paid for with the proceeds from the earlier opera Salome.

Strauss first met Pauline de Ahna in 1887, and married her in 1894. She was not an easy woman to live with. Strauss once memorably described her as "very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never like herself, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before." She first appears in the Strauss compositional canon in the tone poem Ein Heldenleben, as "The Hero's Companion," depicted by a tender violin solo and later (and at greater length) in the pages of the Symphonia domestica.

Pauline's unique character inspired Strauss to write a loose trilogy of three operas about marriage. Die Frau ohne Schatten (covered elsewhere) is the first, with librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal modeling the Dyer's Wife on Pauline. Hofmannsthal described the Wife as "bizarre woman (emphasis is Hofmannsthal's) with a very beau­ti­ful soul, au fond; strange, moody, dom­i­neer­ing and yet at the same time likeable." Intermezzo, based on actual incident in the Strauss marriage) was the second. The third is Die Ägyptische Helene, and Hoffmannsthal again used Pauline as his inspiration for his portrayal of Helen of Troy.

The libretto of Intermezzo was written by Strauss himself, and is based on a true story. In 1903, the conductor Josef Stransky and the tenor Emilio de Marchi was approached by a girl in a Berlin hotel bar seeking tickets to a performance. The tenor, whose German was not its best, said "Oh, Herr Strausky (meaning "Stransky") will look after that." Stransky never followed through, and the lady never received the tickets.

The young lady looked up "Strausky" in the phone book and found...Kapellmeis­ter Strauss living in the Joachim­sthaler­ Strasse. She wrote him a note: "Dar­ling love! Do get me the tick­ets. Your faith­ful Mitze. P.S. My address is Mitze Mücke, 5 Lüneburgerstrasse." It almost destroyed the marriage. Pauline started divorce proceedings, would not answer Strauss' letters and telegrams, and it took some doing before she was persuaded that it had all been a misunderstanding.

The above is essentially the plot of Intermezzo. Strauss is renamed "Robert Storch," and his wife becomes "Christine." The libretto gives her a sub-plot in which she flirts with a young baron, but the work is basically a re-telling of this ugly incident. Its greatest saving grace is that it plays wonderfully well in the theater, and stands among the finest of Strauss' few smaller-scale operas. He made the portrait of his wife into a magnificent part for the soprano, and the reconciliation scene at the end is a marvelous exercise in Straussian tradition as the turbulent themes of the opera resolve themselves into domestic harmonies.

The most frequently played part of Intermezzo is its..intermezzi. There are four of these, transiting between scenes in a series of gorgeous orchestral interludes. They include some of Strauss' most elegant orchestral writing ("Dreaming by the Fireside") and his most graphic ("A Game of Skat") in which Strauss portrays the shuffling and clicking of cards in his favorite card game. Those interludes sometimes appear as concert excerpts, and "Dreaming by the Fireside" proved to be a welcome feature of a recent disc  by the Vienna Philharmonic with Semyon Bychkov.

On opening night, Strauss brought his wife to the premiere of the new opera. Afterward, soprano Lotte Lehman, a Strauss favorite who created the role of Christine Storch, congratulated Pauline on this  "marvelous present to you from your husband."

Pauline replied: "I don't give a damn."

Recording Recommendations:
There are a number of recordings available, including one in English. In fact the one caveat about Intermezzo is that in some ways it is more like a stage play than an opera. With its quick-fire dialogue and fast-moving plot, this is an opera that is best heard in the listener's native language.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI/WBC, 1980)
This excellent recording was part of Mr. Sawallisch's deep dive into Straussian repertory and filled an important gap in the catalogue when it was issues. It also captured the great Lucia Popp in one of her best roles. Her Storch is none other than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Recommended. Sung in German.

London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. John Pritchard (Recorded at Glyndebourne in 1974, released 1991 on Chandos)
Elisabeth Söderström brings her considerable vocal resources to the role of Christine Storch, capturing the complex, multifaceted nature of the character. She is bossy, elegant, kind, shrewish, generous, rude, and occasionally condescending. She is well matched with baritone Marco Bakker in the role of Robert Storch, the composer's self-portrait. Mr. Bakker is a true baritone, and sails through the rapid-fire dialogue, coming into his own in the long duet that ends the opera. Sung in English.

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