Strauss’s Intermezzo at Scottish Opera

Richard Strauss, Intermezzo: Soloists, Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Conductor: Francesco Corti. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 5. 3.2011 (SRT)
Christine – Anita Bader
Robert – Roland Wood
Baron Lummer – Nicky Spence
Anna – Sarah Redgwick
Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Francesco Corti (conductor)
Wolfgang Quetes (director)
Manfred Kaderk (designer)
Matthias Hönig (lighting)

I’ve always been rather sceptical of Strauss’s Intermezzo. It dramatises a real-life incident in the Strausses’ marriage where a misunderstanding led to Pauline Strauss threatening to divorce her husband. The names are changed to provide a modicum of privacy but right from the first performance there was no doubt as to the truth behind the fiction. If this speaks of hubris in the composer beyond the reasonable then remember that this is also the man who wrote Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica! The real problem with the work, however, is its over-reliance on parlando-style recitative. There are precious few arioso passages and most of the vocal line is an endless recitative. That said, Scottish Opera’s presentation of the work came closer than any other
I’ve experienced to overcoming these problems.

The real reason for this is the strength of their orchestral playing. Strauss’s skill as an orchestrator hit me afresh listening to Francesco Corti and his band bringing the score to life before my ears. There may not be many memorable melodies in the singing but the orchestral accompaniment, especially in the many intermezzi which come between the scenes, sweeps and surges with all the lyricism and ultra-Romantic gloss that you associate with the composer of Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Nowhere is it lovelier than in the fifth scene of Act 1 as Christine sits alone at the dining table, contemplating her life as the stay-at-home wife of a great conductor. The last minute or so of the opera, coming after the couple’s final reconciliation, carries all before it and led to an exceptionally warm reception from the audience. It’s worth contemplating that this is an orchestra that have just agreed to go part time, and I can’t help but doubt that any part-time band could produce sounds like this which require such careful crafting: we may be witnessing the end of something special.

It helps that the world of the opera is brought so convincingly to life by the creative team. Designer Manfred Kaderk successfully evokes the world of the Vienna Secession through Klimt-inspired decor; in fact, it is this painter’s Kiss that provides the curtain and much of the backdrop, its separation into two halves at the beginning of the opera is not repaired until the couple’s reconciliation at the end. Kaderk’s designs and Quetes’ direction mean that the scene changes come quickly and create the many separate worlds of the different scenes effectively while keeping the central unity of the decorative scheme. Even the furniture and the costumes are used as part of the artistic whole, and Matthias Hönig’s subtle lighting changes allow each scene to melt into the next beautifully.

The singing and acting is also very strong indeed. Anita Bader sings Christine’s music with all the lustrous richness required of a great Strauss soprano, creamy and fulsome at the top while allowing room for the histrionics that this character has to resort to at times. Roland Wood’s Robert is a good foil for her, authoritative and solid if a little gravelly at times. Nicky Spence makes an auspicious company debut with his bright burnished tenor, even if he overdoes the Baron’s smarmy side. Minor roles are all taken very well, with perhaps special mention going to the restrained dignity of Michel de Souza’s Notary.

I still think Intermezzo is fatally flawed and, as I said when I reviewed the DVD of the Glyndebourne production, it can’t be anybody’s favourite Strauss opera. Beautiful as the music can be, it’s hard to deny that the whole set-up is pretty self-regarding! But a production like this brought me as close to the work as I’m likely to get. It’s a tribute to Scottish Opera that they are still capable of producing such good work in such difficult times.

Simon Thompson