A Mistaken Identity

Richard Strauss’ seldomly performed opera returns to Vienna after a forty-six year hiatus

Intermezzo

Richard Strauss’s marriage played out on stage in Intermezzo | Photo: Armin Bardel

After so much opera awash in affectation and airs, what a relief to see the wonderful comic gem of domestic intrigue Intermezzo, by Richard Strauss, in a new production Dec. 11-20, 2008, at the Theater an der Wien.  Here we have a glimpse into the back scenes of a marital drama, some eavesdropping on private conversations, a touching tale of a mundane mixed-up of love and jealousy.

Intermezzo, which premiered in Dresden in 1924, is the most seldom played of all his operas. Staged only a handful of times in Europe – Vienna’s last production was in 1963 – its U.S. premier (in Santa Fe) had to wait sixty years, until 1984. It is a testament to the boldness of the new management at Theater an der Wien, now in its third season of presenting serious opera, daring to offer repertoire elsewhere considered too difficult. And it does so with imaginative staging that is fresh and uncluttered, and usually with Vienna’s Radio Symphony Orchestra, a first-rate orchestra that can play Strauss as if it were chamber music.

The death of productions of this fine opera is lamentable, as it is full of the qualities considered Strauss at his best. One can only guess that Intermezzo, based on the home life of Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline, was somehow irritating in its potentially embarrassing, close-up view of married life.

The libretto was written by Strauss himself, and his portrait of his wife is anything but flattering. And yet Christine (Pauline) at her most exasperating is still appealing, and despite her nagging and controlling manner, still exposes, in unguarded moments, something childlike, wistful and hopeful.

We all recognize the overbearing grumpy departures, the furious, fussy checking if all the details are perfect, whether the hardboiled eggs are well packed and the umbrella hasn’t been forgotten. What a pain! But then, husband just out of sight, the melancholic loneliness of true love. And we are also acquainted with Robert Storch, the alter-ego of the composer himself, heaving a sigh of relief and happy to get away, but later revealing a charming sincerity when defending his wife under criticism from his card-playing friends.

The plot in a nutshell: While Robert is off to Vienna for a two-month sojourn, wife Christine reads a misdirected billet-doux that was intended for one of her husband’s colleagues. Thinking her husband has been unfaithful, she marches off to a divorce lawyer. Along with some harmless flirting on the part of Christine (with the young Baron Lummer), it is clear that it takes a while for the mix-up to be cleared up.

The text chatters on and on – this is certainly a libretto that requires a phenomenal memory. Just try to recall, verbatim, every single word that you and your spouse said last Saturday. The orchestra accompanies with its own chatter of transparent notes, but in between, what wonderful, fragrant music! The staging included some hilarious antics at the ski chalet; you needed to come back and see it three more times to catch all the wacky madness. But it never succumbed to slapstick and never stole the show, which stayed with the protagonist and her heartbreak.

Carola Glaser, who took over the role of Christine at the last minute, was astonishingly good, all the more remarkable for the last-minute timing. Still unknown in Vienna, hopefully she has now been ‘discovered.’ While mastering the vocal crests, she never let us overlook the wavering depth of Christine’s emotions.

Bo Skovhus as Robert Storch brought a magnificent voice to the role with just the right amount of masculine presence on stage. And Oliver Ringelhahn as Baron Lummer, a sly fox with a timbre suggesting he was still innocent enough to be forgiven. The Radio Orchestra clearly enjoyed playing under Kirill Petrenko and shone, both when lying low under all the talking and then when gushing forth in the orchestral interludes.

And one final note: it’s gratifying to have an opera where the heroine doesn’t die in the final scene! No, here is a happy end, daily life has returned to normal with maybe a little bit learned – although probably not as much as should have been.

What makes this trivial comedy great? It’s that moment in the midst of all the laughter when we suddenly realize that just yesterday we made the same flying accusations, had the same outburst of histrionics, fell into the same spasms of weeping. Then we realize the grain of truth: that despite all the pain and grief of our daily tragedies, we are, at heart, all quite childish in the midst of them. In our most dramatic moments, it is a great gift to be able to step back and smile at ourselves. A small rueful grin at how silly we have been.

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