New York City Opera – Intermezzo

Strauss
Intermezzo, Op.72 – Bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes in two acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in an English translation by Andrew Porter, with supertitles by Cori Ellison]

Christine Storch – Mary Dunleavy
Robert Storch – Nicholas Pallesen
Anna – Jessica Klein
Marie Therese – Julie Kissin
Fanny, the cook – Lisa Kopitsky
Franzl – Adam Burby
Baron Lummer – Andrew Bidlack
The Notary’s Wife – Jennifer Tiller
Resi – Tharanga Goonetilleke
Kapellmeister Stroh – Erik Nelson Werner
A Businessman – David Kravitz
A Lawyer – William Ledbetter
A Singer – Jan Opalach
The Notary – Matthew Burns

New York City Opera Orchestra
George Manahan

Leon Major – Director
Beth Greenberg – Associate Stage Director
Andrew Jackness – Set Designer
Martha Mann – Costume Designer
Mark McCullough – Lighting Designer


Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 5 November, 2010
Venue: David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City

Jan Opalach (A Singer), David Kravitz (A Businessman), William Ledbetter (A Lawyer), Erik Nelsen Werner (Kapellmeister Stroh), and Nicholas Pallesen (Robert Storch). Intermezzo, New York City Opera, November 2010. Photograph: Carol RoseggAfter two years of renovations to the New York State Theater, its home at Lincoln Center, New York City Opera has finally regained the full use of the theatre – renamed as the David H. Koch Theater. The company’s 2010-11 season will include five fully-staged productions and a like number of concert programmes, beginning with a new production of Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” and this revival of “Intermezzo”, based on a 1990 production at Glimmerglass Opera.

Richard Strauss composed “Intermezzo” during his tenure as co-director of Wiener Staatsoper, but he first conceived the idea for the opera several years earlier whilst at work with Hugo von Hofmannsthal on revising “Ariadne auf Naxos”. Strauss often wove autobiographical allusions into his music (Ein Heldenleben and Sinfonia domestica being conspicuous examples), but in “Intermezzo” he went much further by dramatising specific incidents from his life. The principal plot involves an incident of mistaken identity that had led Strauss’s wife, Pauline, to seriously contemplate divorcing him. That story line is interwoven with a secondary plot based on another occurrence in which a confidence-trickster had attempted to borrow money from Pauline. In the opera, Strauss portrays himself as Robert Storch and Pauline as Storch’s wife, Christine. So great was Strauss’s concern for plot detail that his intended librettist, Hermann Bahr, withdrew, advising the composer to write the libretto himself, which Strauss did in 1917 – some six years before he finally completed the opera.

Mary Dunleavy (Christine Storch) and Andrew Bidlack (Baron Lummer). Intermezzo, New York City Opera, November 2010. Photograph: Carol RoseggTo convey the plot line in realistic detail, Strauss set his libretto almost entirely as prose dialogue, sometimes spoken, sometimes delivered in recitative, and sometimes sung. This parlando style goes well beyond what Strauss had previously done in the ‘Prologue’ to “Ariadne”. Although there are no arias in “Intermezzo”, there are many demanding passages for the vocal soloists to negotiate, and there are heavy demands on the orchestra as well, since nearly all of the opera’s lyricism occurs in the twelve orchestral interludes that separate the opera’s events. The episodic structure of the opera also poses challenges for the production team, which must effect frequent scene-changes and hold the audience’s attention during extended orchestral passages. All of these challenges are met in excellent fashion in this stylish production.

Mary Dunleavy (Christine Storch) and Nicholas Pallesen (Robert Storch). Intermezzo, New York City Opera, November 2010. Photograph: Carol RoseggAndrew Jackness’s sets were functional and attractive. The scene on the ski-slopes was managed particularly well, with skiers and sledders sliding down the slope and across the stage, although the collision between Christine and Baron Lummer was less than convincing. Amusing stage-business given to the servants at the Storch household and to skating waiters at an inn made several of the scene changes quite entertaining. Martha Mann’s costumes captured the spirit of the 1920s’ era in which the opera was set, and Mark McCullough’s lighting effects were pleasingly atmospheric.

The success of any production of “Intermezzo” necessarily depends on the portrayals of Christine and Robert Storch. Mary Dunleavy sang with a penetrating soprano voice, deftly managing her leaping vocal line. She commanded the stage dramatically as she quarrelled with her husband, domineered her servants, and enjoyed the company of Baron Lummer – at least until he asked her for money!

Mary Dunleavy (Christine Storch) and Andrew Bidlack (Baron Lummer). Intermezzo, New York City Opera, November 2010. Photograph: Carol RoseggStrauss’s libretto treats Christine rather unsympathetically, but makes his own alter ego, Robert Storch, a paragon of virtue – kind, thoughtful, tolerant and loyal. Nicholas Pallesen’s portrayal of Robert brought a strong baritone to a vocal line that, although calmer and less jarring than Christine’s, still calls upon him to hold his own in the couple’s frequent vocal sparring, in which Pallesen matched Dunleavy blow for blow.

Andrew Bidlack gave a well-sung and creditable account of the deceiving playboy, Baron Lummer. Unfortunately, however, Strauss made the Baron’s character rather one-dimensional, both vocally and dramatically, despite his being present nearly throughout the opera, both as the subject of its subsidiary plot and as a secondary figure in the evolution of the principal plot line. In Strauss’s libretto, when Lummer is visited in his room in the notary’s house by his young girlfriend, Resi (Tharanga Goonetilleke), he sends her away at once, lest her visit come to the attention of Christine, who has rented the room for him from the notary’s wife (Jennifer Tiller). In a slight twist added in this production, Resi returns almost immediately afterward and joins Lummer under the bedclothes as the scene ends.

The remainder of the City Opera cast also performed ably. Jessica Klein, as the Storchs’ maid Anna, maintained her composure as she absorbed Christine’s unwarranted criticism, whilst Lisa Kopitsky as Fanny, the cook, crumbled under Christine’s constant abuse. Also in the Storchs’ household were Adam Burby as their young son, Franzl, and Julie Kissin as a housemaid.

The Skat party scene that opened the second act was delightful, as the quartet of Robert Storch’s companions alternately attended to the card-game and gossiped, mostly about Storch and his wife, leading to his giving an impassioned defence of Christine. In this excellent group were Erik Nelson Werner, David Kravitz, William Ledbetter, and bass-baritone Jan Opalach. This scene was followed by Christine’s calling at the office of the Storchs’ notary (Matthew Burns), who refuses to credit her accusations of her husband’s infidelity and declines to commence divorce proceedings on her behalf, a turn of events that is punctuated by a stormy interlude.

George Manahan, New York City Opera’s music director, conducted the orchestra – a fairly small ensemble by Straussian standards – in an outstanding account of the score, infusing the interludes with lyricism, passion and playfulness to reflect the events of the opera’s plot, the changing moods of its characters, and onomatopoeic representations of glissading toboggans and the shuffling of cards. The waltz to which Christine and the Baron danced soon after their initial encounter was delightfully reminiscent of earlier-composed “Der Rosenkavalier”, and the score is dotted with brief quotations from Strauss’s own compositions as well as a few by other composers.

  • Further performances through November 20

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