Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Marriage: Intermezzo at City Opera

The New York City Opera's production of Intermezzo served as a happy reminder of many of the reasons I love Richard Strauss: music and drama with a sense of humor, and unstinting compassion and creativity.  Publicity makes much of Christine, the wife who believes herself wronged, as a comic character... but Strauss' music and drama are more nuanced than that, and the singers' performances acknowledged as much.  The bright production tended to veer too far towards gimmicky for my taste, but was generally serviceable and sometimes charming.  The Art Deco furnishings looked so nice I wanted to steal them, while bits of spiking tape and an absence of painted walls were an occasional distraction (the Beloved Flatmate and I briefly debated whether this was an intentional commentary on the issue of the central couple's private life being in the public eye, and then the subsequent issue of staging a domestic episode precipitated in part by this tension...but thought, on the whole, that it wasn't.)  The 1920s costumes were individualized enough to serve the characters well; Christine, the volatile central character, had a wardrobe full of slightly-eccentric chic.

A synopsis of the opera may be found here.  To Strauss' credit as composer and husband, I think, Christine is not the irrational shrew seen by Storch's acquaintances in the opera and some reviewers.  Insecure, and struggling to cope with the hectic schedule of the famous conductor/composer, and with a lack of people being interested in her as a person, rather than as his wife, yes.  The sympathetic Storch, too, has a good-natured indulgence which can tip over into a somewhat patronizing self-righteousness.  Mary Dunleavy sang Christine without caricature; she overreacts, and pouts, and storms, but she is also genuinely good-hearted.  None of the singers were helped by the awkward English translations.  Stresses often fell in the wrong places (my brain was playing Guess the German Original more than half the time) and Dunleavy, especially, was often unintelligible.  Nicholas Pallesen, as Storch, sang expressively, in a warm, rich baritone that left me wanting more.  His exasperation, anxiety, and affection were all credible, and lovely to listen to.  Here is Hermann Prey in the comic scene where Storch fumes and frets over Christine's angry silence, and is informed by his acquaintance Stroh of the origins of the misunderstanding.  From "verfluchtes Weibsbild" to "meine arme Frau, meine gute Christine!" in five minutes...!  The weak-willed Baron Lummer was sung with appropriate wheedling by Andrew Bidlack, about whose Don Ottavio I found myself speculating.  Jessica Klein was a standout as the long-suffering maid Anna, with a pleasing soprano and a vivid stage presence.

Dunleavy and Pallesen, final scene
For me the true star of the evening, though, was Strauss-as-composer.  While the NYCO orchestra may not have the lushness or precision of their more eminent neighbors, George Manahan led them in an interpretation that had plenty of verve while still giving its subject appropriate gravity.  And Strauss uses the orchestra to depict any number of things: a telephone ringing, the dealing of cards on a green baize tablecloth, the upheaval of a woman getting dressed in a hurry.  Moods ranged from the bounce of a J. Strauss-esque waltz to a tempestuous storm that reflects the characters' near-despair.  Here is Träumerei am Kamin, the orchestral Zwischenspiel that accompanies the lonely Christine's thoughts of her husband.  And Strauss also created passages reminiscent of Rosenkavalier in their ecstatic celebration of love... and he created them to surround and underscore a man bragging about his wife over a game of cards, a wife boasting of her husband with self-conscious pride, and husband and wife slightly stiffly reconciling after the opera's prolonged misunderstanding.  While Storch and Christine may be battling over who gets the last word, or teasing each other for respective follies, the music assures us that these people share something profound.  "Is ours not what people call a happy marriage?" asks Christine in the English translation... and as the orchestra crescendos, the couple settles back in their respective armchairs to read the newspaper together; simultaneous stolen glances lead them to an embrace on the final chords.   

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