Finishing the spat

intermezzoAlthough billed as “I Love Lucy the opera”, New York City Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s conversation-piece Intermezzo offers far more emotional depth than the much-loved 1950s sitcom. Yet ironically, in key moments it lacks the necessary heart which Lucy had in spades. 

Based on an actual episode in Strauss’s marriage, Intermezzo unfolds in a series of conversational scenes connected by symphonic interludes. The character of Christine, who is based on Strauss’s own wife and is onstage for almost the entire opera, is one of his typically dynamic creations, filled with subtleties and contradictions. Consequently, the success of Intermezzo rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the prima donna, who must be able to carefully balance Christine’s haughty and shrewish qualities with vulnerability, charm, and warmth.

Mary Dunleavy, singing this challenging role for the first time was unable to achieve this balance, rendering the dénouement insufficiently convincing. She crackled during the comedic bits, however, and was pleasantly restrained where others may have been tempted to camp it up.

Vocally, Ms. Dunleavy was excellent, using her bright, well-placed soprano to project Andrew Porter‘s translation of Strauss’s libretto with ease and crisp diction. Her intonation was spot-on and she was able to soar over the orchestra with unexpected power, most importantly in the final scene, even after having been onstage for most of the opera’s fourteen scenes. Unfortunately, Ms. Dunleavy’s voice is not one of many colors or warmth, which may have contributed to the stern, cutting quality of her interpretation.

She was able to convey Christine’s various degrees of melancholy, dissatisfaction, and outrage convincingly, but was unable to project the necessary tenderness when affirming her unending love to Storch in the glowing F sharp major finale, where she seemed primarily concerned with emitting radiant tones rather than imbuing the words with heartfelt sincerity. One hopes that as she continues in the run, her characterization of Christine will match her vocal mastery of the role.

As Robert Storch, Nicholas Pallesen portrayed the composer’s love of his wife’s foibles and faults persuasively, as well as his outbursts of frustration. His youthful baritone had sufficient weight for the part and reminded us that this was still the composer in his early prime, not yet the aged master. Debutant Andrew Bidlack’s lyric tenor was generally pleasant, and he made the ungrateful part of the Baron Lummer about as likable as possible. Conductor George Manahan led a straightforward and unsubtle account of Strauss’s occasionally generic score, propelling the colorful interludes with vigor.

Leon Major‘s traditional production, filled with quick set changes and plenty of comic stage business, was obviously well-rehearsed and impressively polished. His direction has some delightful details, but is occasionally too busy and distracting in the interludes, which Strauss intended to convey the emotional experiences of the characters. The set design by Andrew Jackness more than adequately fulfills the tricky demand of twelve seamless scene changes, yet the sets themselves, dominated by bare white walls, seem unfinished and cheap.

Despite reservations about Mary Dunleavy’s Christine, this revival of Intermezzo truly does have much to recommend itself. New York City Opera’s sparkling cast and sleek production make a strong case for Strauss’s uniquely personal and experimental work, which deftly mingles witty comedy and marital melodrama with unforced brilliance. [Photo: Mary Dunleavy and Andrew Bidlack in Intermezzo © Carol Rosegg]