Intermezzo - New York City Opera at David H. Koch Theater, 9 November 2010
Richard Strauss's Intermezzo doesn't quite deserve a place up there with the likes of Salome and Elektra, but it hardly merits the obscurity that has become its lot either. Hey, even this blog is higher up the Google rankings. The problem I think is that it's not really an opera at all. No big numbers, not a tune you could hum. Strauss himself called it "a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes." I'd call it a light play set to music (think Noel Coward without the wit or the cruelty) with some orchestral business to cover the scenery changes.
New York City Opera have revived Leon Major's ten year old production to general critical acclaim (the show I saw was mid-run). Andrew Porter's English translation, apt on paper, inevitably mutilates the conversational tone of the original. The stresses fall in all the wrong places for a start. But it combines with broadly realistic art deco sets and naturalistic acting to lend an accessible, cinematic, all-American feel - the Bavarian bourgeoisie as seen through George Cukor's lens.
The story is based on an episode in Strauss's own life. After providing more helpful suggestions than the original librettist Hermann Bahr could tolerate, Strauss found the task of writing the words dumped back in his own lap. He spins out the slim plot with such a flair for characterisation and dramaturgy that it's a regret he didn't write his own librettos more often.
The central character, Christine Storch is based on his own wife, Pauline, and her husband Robert on himself (Storch = stork, Strauss = ostrich). When the shrewish Pauline intercepts a love letter apparently addressed to her absent husband, she goes ballistic, conveniently ignoring her own platonic but gossip-making liaison with the young Baron Lummer. Of course Robert eventually manages to set her right and a happy ending ensues. The message? Behind every serenely successful artist is a noisy, volatile woman doing all the dirty work.
Mary Dunleavy wisely didn't try to make Christine sympathetic. Instead she displayed the fireball energy and utter self-conviction that the lazy, placid Robert so admires and needs to prod him into action - showing in effect why he loves and defends her with such passion. Her voice is on the light side, but its cutting edge allowed her to ride the orchestra with ease. Alone amongst the cast she managed a solid English accent both spoken and sung. The others slipped into Americanese as they sang - though I do wonder with a basically American cast why they didn't simply do both in their regular accents in the first place.
Nicholas Pallesen made an affable Robert, and Andrew Bidlach displayed a reedy but solid tenor as the sponging Baron Lummer. Christine's put-upon maid Anna was played by Jessica Klein with the perfect blend of servility and snark. The whole cast seemed well-rehearsed, and while there weren't any traffic-stopping voices on display, there was nothing to complain about either.
The NYCO orchestra under George Manahan accompanied the singers tidily enough. But the beautifully choreographed scenery changes by waiters on roller skates and bustling maids were vital to disguise musical inadequacies in the Zwischenspielen. With a conductor and orchestra more temperamentally suited to Strauss, these interludes might the highlight of the whole performance. But they drew scrappy playing from the NYCO orchestra, some of whom seemed on the edge of their abilities. George Manahan chopped up the long phrases, and without the singers the dramatic momentum was lost.
Having failed in my attempt to buy a ticket in advance (the NYCO website only accepts US or Canadian addresses), I had no trouble picking up one for $25 on the day. On the top deck (the Dante-esque 'Fourth Ring'), this gave a clear if distant view of proceedings and reasonable sound. Comfy seats cater to the generous proportions of the American bottom, and there's plenty of legroom too. Bargain - particularly compared with the prices of nearby Broadway shows - and I think many a musicals fan would enjoy this very accessible production as well.
It was a bit of a surprise then to find the place (at a guess) a quarter full. Great reviews clearly aren't enough to fill seats when there are other problems. Despite recent refurbishment of the auditorium and copious numbers of helpful staff, the theatre has an austere, forbidding feel. It's not easy to locate the ticket windows when you enter (they're hidden in a wall of blinding lights) and signage is practically non-existent. Half the stairs are roped off, forcing patrons on the right hand side to walk all the way round.The cunningly-concealed coat check costs $2, with the result that most of the economically-minded visitors sit with their anoraks rustling annoyingly on their lap throughout. Refreshments are overpriced and inelegantly served ($4.75 for orangeade in a plastic cup!), and many people seemed to have brought their own. And situating the excellent shop on the first floor, where it's only accessible to ticket holders, rather than in the vast empty foyer, where anyone could visit, seems a perverse move for a cash-strapped company.
Overall, it's not a set-up that would encourage the casual debutant to enter let alone return. The Met is just next door and it's got all the details right. It feels like a proper night out rather than a trial, and its cheapest tickets cost no more than NYCO's. These things don't matter much to me personally, but if I was a tourist or a first-timer I know which one I'd choose. No wonder that the few people I spoke to seemed to be hardcore opera buffs.
the curtain call (more photos to be added at the weekend):
and from another angle:
other photos: intermezzo.typepad.com
For a feel of the production, here's NYCO's promo video: