Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Intermezzo: the backstory

When all is said and done, what can strangers ever really fathom about the secrets of a heart in love?  I had seen much in the Strauss ménage that rather worried me and that seemed incomprehensible; yet Pauline was and remained Strauss's beloved wife.  I am utterly convinced that he was deeply happy at her side, and that between them there existed harmony and understanding beyond all appearance, that their marriage served as the fundamental inspiration for many of Strauss's immortal works.  --Lotte Lehmann

I'm off to Intermezzo at the City Opera tonight, and my reading on the subject has entertained and interested me so much that I decided to give it its own post.  So voila!  Intermezzo wasn't classified by its composer as an opera, but as a "bourgeois comedy with orchestral interludes."  Richard Strauss's confidence in and affection for the work doesn't seem to have been shared by too many since.  Even NYCO's own publicity seemed strangely apologetic, especially before the bolstering with positive reviews after the opening.  Much was made of the work's "lighthearted" and "cinematic" qualities (I had a friend who received the mistaken impression that the City Opera was performing "I Love Lucy: the Opera" after reading an ad headline which said just that.)  Maybe somewhere there are potential audiences whose ears perk up when they hear an opera described as "accessible," but to me, this seems patronizing of audience and work alike.

According to the New York Post, Intermezzo is "a minor work"; even the Richard Strauss Companion accords it no place in the index.  Norman Del Mar's three-volume Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works contains the following uncomplimentary and amusing index headings, among others: "written during lulls between more engaging compositions;" "doubtful taste of Strauss's depicting of his family life;" "never securely established in repertoire."  The Financial Times calls it "strange, charming, and fragile."  Of course, there is the "problem" of How To Classify It.  The music is not the wild, heady stuff of Salome or Elektra.  Lotte Lehmann, who created the role of Christine, describes the opera as innovative in other ways in her Five Operas and Richard Strauss.  Both the music, determined by the rhythms of speech, and the colloquial libretto gave her "no end of trouble," by her own account.  "Nowadays, of course," she wrote in 1964, "no singer would experience the slightest difficulty with either the music or the words, but at the time  they both presented a departure from traditional norms which seemed daring, strange, and challenging."

I'll write more on the plot with the performance review, but a quick overview here.  The word "slight" gets bandied quite a bit in reviews, but, I ask, slight in comparison to what?  "Nobleman tries to sleep with wife's maid, his lackey gets angry, the pageboy tries to sleep with everyone, but all's well that ends well" may not sound like the stuff of everyone's favorite candidate for most profound, humane, universal meditation on what makes individuals tick and society function, but...!  The autobiographical character of the comedy (semi- hardly seems an appropriate prefix) is sometimes alluded to as though it were a great scholarly secret... but the sets for the Dresden premiere in 1924 were made to look like Strauss's house in Garmisch-Partenkirchen!  The domestic drama/comedy of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, misdirected letters, and mild extramarital flirtation may, in the end, turn out to be viel Lärm um nichts, but in the process, if my preliminary dips into libretto and music are any indication, Richard Strauss offers up some deeply compassionate meditations on love and marriage.  As a longtime lover of Der Rosenkavalier and a new admirer of Die Frau ohne Schatten, how could I be otherwise than excited?


  1. Wow, Intermezzo. That's one you don't hear about every day. Have fun! As for the "slight" problem: the conventional Norman Del Mar narrative of post-Elektra Strauss is that he was an insufferably bourgeois composer of immense technique but insufficient imagination and excessive tonality. I think that the domestic, intimate qualities of Intermezzo just reinforce this idea for writers who think the only acceptable form of innovation in this period was what the Second Viennese School was up to (and who generally privilege musical language over dramaturgy). The critics can get on board with Die Frau ohne Schatten because no one can figure out what the hell it's about, but they dismiss Intermezzo and the Sinfonia domestica and things like that as gemütlich and excessively feminine (this critique is totally gendered) and unimportant, because it plays into their story of Strauss in retreat after Elektra and the avant-garde of the Schoenberg circle as the important figures. This screws over Korngold and Zemlinsky and Schreker pretty badly too. That's my guess as to why, at least.

  2. Fun was had! Thanks for the informed take on the criticism. Sneaky gendered criticism, sigh.


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