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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]

24 comments

  • phoenix says:

    good review scifisci, thank you very much… you are not only perceptive, but intuitive as well …

    -- i’ve heard this opera & saw it only once … i never gave it much of a chance because i don’t like the recitiative & all its various manifestations in this work… i know strauss wrote the libretto, but it doesn’t hold together for me as good as the Act 3 of Arabella he finished after Hofmannstahl died.
    -- plebian me much prefers Strauss’ music for Hofmannstahl’s take on Strauss’ wife Pauline as the role model for die Färberin in Frau ohne Schatten … Strauss gave her some of his most wonderful zounds.

  • Camille says:

    Not terribly surprised to hear the reservations about Dunleavy’s characterization. Hope she improves as she was/is a very good singer: her Giulietta in Capuletti e I Montecchi was excellent, I remember.

    This was the role that Flanagan really excelled in, for my taste, in a performance a decade ago or so. She easily dominated the part and was delightful. Good skater, too!

    Intermezzo is a kind of mid-life mess. It really needs all the help it can get, specially in the part of Christine.

    Thanks for your thoughts, scifisci. Aren’t you one of the Young Ones on The Box?

    • scifisci says:

      Definitely agree about the role of Christine…Dunleavy didn’t really have the charisma to carry the show as I can imagine Flanigan did, but the rest of the cast and production were strong enough to mostly make up for it.

      I suppose at 23 I am indeed one of the Young Ones, though not the youngest by far!…Mr. Florezrocks is already making me feel like an old man!

      • Camille says:

        And don’t forget young Mr. Fartnose!
        I hope you will continue to advise and assist him.

        You do very well for yourself, at whtever age. I had read your comments for quite a while, never suspecting you were such a youth. It makes me glad to know that there is someone out there besides us aging old queens, that take it all seriously and love it, too. Not as though there’s any music education in public schools these days — oh yes — Little Fartnose did inform us of the Met performances that his school attended, so there’s that.

        My husband used to drag his classes to his University’s sponsored readings of string quartets and the like, which I used to audit. It was often difficult to hear the music for the buzzing of the snores around me! He asked his classes why it puts them to sleep and the general response was that the music was “okay” (Beethoven late quartets, e.g.), but the big caveat was it had no BEAT!

        Roll over, Beethoven

        • scifisci says:

          thank you, camille for your kind comments!

          My alma mater used to have sponsored lunchtime string quartet concerts as well (perhaps the same?) which were sometimes well attended, sometimes not. Late beethoven can be tough going for classical music neophytes, but there’s no denying the “beat” of the opus 18 gems!

          My elementary and middle schools actually had pretty good music ed programs surprisingly, though i doubt they do anymore. My music education, however, was from my immersion in violin lessons, music theory, etc. from a very young age, thanks to my parents. Opera was a natural extension of that and after getting my first opera recordings (price’s aida, scotto’s butterfly, schippers boheme, sutherland art of prima donna, callas norma)my fate as a future opera queen was sealed!

          • Camille says:

            Eh bien, Cheri, having studied violin will explain why you have a good idea what singing is, and isn’t, as it is so similar in some respects. Keep on, keeping on dear youth!

    • Conchita says:

      Agree with you on Flanagan. Saw her do this at Glimmerglass close to 20 years ago and it’s engraved in my mind. Great presence, and drama in the voice.

      • LittleMasterMiles says:

        I really liked this production the last time around with Flanagan, and the bonus in the Baron of Matthew Chellis, with whom I once had a brief…

        Anyway, I’d happily see it again. There’s some really charming music in there, and one can’t wait around for an “ideal cast” in a rarely-heard work like this.

  • NYCOQ says:

    Very good review. I was on the fence about seeing this again and this has definitely made me want to see a performance. Mary Dunleavy has been one of my favorites since I first caught her performance in Il Viaggio over a decade ago. Her Violetta, Giulietta & Lucia have been high on my list of underated performers. One does need to remember that she is an ex-Queen Of The Night. So a “bright” “cutting” quality to her voice is to be expected. I saw this production with Flanigan 3 times. I look forward to Ms. Dunleavy’s performance.

    • NYCOQ says:

      Sorry, should have read: underated performances. Dunleavy along with Amy Burton & Lauren Flanigan were arguably the reiging house sopranos at NYCO 10-15 years ago. Its good to see her performing at NYCO again.

  • Erdgeist says:

    Andrew Porter’s translation of Strauss’s libretto

    I should start reading the fine print more carefully. I just assumed it was in German until this review.

  • papopera says:

    There are few memorable moments in this little biographical work. But I love the gorgeous waltzes in the interludes.
    Have you noticed that the music of the final scene
    is exactly the same as the love music of
    Frau Ohne Schatten ??

    • phoenix says:

      jog my beleaguered memory, papo, i don’t have any recordings of Intermezzo & the only “love music” i remember in Frau ohne Schatten is between the Dyer & his wife at the beginning of Act 3.
      Is that the “love music” you are talking about or… well i guess it could be self love music, something most of them seem to indulge in throughout the opera… have i forgotten music for another couple… the Emperor & Empress perhaps, or the Nurse & the Falcon, or Keikobad & the apparition of a youth…

      • Camille says:

        That was VERY FUNNY, phoenix, about the purported love music in the FRoSCH--I ws scratching my head too. What about the love interest for those icky bruders of poor ol’ good-natured, really supposed to be Strauss?

        Hope you have that Fedora score out working on it. First Act is a bitch!

        • phoenix says:

          sorry, but i’m doing the old anna n. bit with Fedora… waiting inside my monkey carrier kennel until they ship me to San Diego Zoo before i bother opening up the score to look at it.
          However,
          From what i can tell already from hearing it, Fedora is a little too low for me… even in old age my voice never got darker or lower…
          -- You mentioned that marvelous Elisabete Matos on one of your comments under another article on this site… MATOS, she is something else… she rewrites the operas as she sings them, but it’s so exciting and IT’S NEVER DULL WHEN ELISABETE IS ON!
          -- In all seriousness, her Santuzza is the only one i have ever heard in my entire life that i wanted to keep a recording of.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabete_Matos

          • Camille says:

            Phoenix, you are phun! Where have you been all my life?

            Very happy to hear this about Elisabete Matos -- if there was ever a part you could rewrite, that no one could tell the difference, it’s Fanciulla. Now I look forward to my date on 22nd December with ‘The Girl’. Puccini’s greatest work and almost always flushed down the toilet.

            Well, if Fedora is too low, how about Adriana? No, that’s just as low--no C’s there. How about Abigaille in Nabucco? You could edge out Ghoulag.

      • papopera says:

        Dyer & da wife…..Act II the postlude. (Can’t find my f…. score) best recording of Intermezzo is the one with Lucia Popp.

        • phoenix says:

          Thanks!

        • Camille says:

          Papopera, the Act II postlude? Do you possibly mean the beginning of Act III, the wonderful duet between Barak/Sein Weib?

          Oh, and I really liked the list of operas you’d like to hear--.any fAvorites of mine, as well. The Popp-Fi/Di recording of Intermezzo is the best one I’ve heard, but I am not sure of others out there. Seems a real shame Lehmann didn’t record at least some of it!

          • Regina delle fate says:

            The famous Munich production with Hanny Steffek -- yes her again!!! -- and Hermann Prey is available “live” on Orfeo and there’s a DVD of Flott at Glynbdebourne. Fingers crossed that they have Söderström on tape in the archives, even though she sang it there auf Schwenglisch. She also sang in the same production in Originalsprache at the Netherlands Opera in the early 80s, so Dutch Radio might have that buried somewhere. Scottish Opera is doing a new Intermezzo with a German soprano I’ve never heard of. It’s a gem of a piece but it really needs a small theatre: Cuvilliés, Glyndebourne, Garsington, Theatre Royal Glasgow are all perfect. Glimmerglass and St Louis would be good, but it really needs to be sung in the vernacular for English-speaking audiences.

          • Camille says:

            Hanny Steffek?

            What would I do without I Parterriani, and in this instance, the beneficent regina delle fate?

            I have Never Heard of her till Mmes. C+F mentioned the other day. I am usually partial to those Orfeo recordings, so I will look around for it. Yes, I imagine the late, very great Mme. Soderstrom would have torn up the stage with the part. Too bad, I only one occasion of hearing her--@ Met in Pikovaya Dama.

            And this raises a question, to wit: if Fedora is the “graveyard of sopranos”--is the Old Countess in PD, the “graveyard of mezzos and persons formerly known as sopranos” — gee, that instantly brings to mind Maria Mewing….

            Regina delle fate, your graciousness and your munificent response are truly worthy of a Queen.

            Hail Britannia!

  • Camille says:

    Although I can hear Henry Holland groaning all the way from El Lay, it’
    VINCENZO BELLINI’S 209th BIRTHDAY!!

    Since I don’t have the capability to imPorT yoUTube with a BlackBerry, could someone kindly import La Stupenda Sutherland’s Casta Diva (sung in key)?

    • phoenix says:

      you & i must be on the same wavelength. I was just listening a Suk chamber work i automatically recorded in the early AM (for me) from oe1.orf.at & i just now looked at this thing & there you are at about the same time!
      -- But that is as far as the wavelength goes. I am tone deaf (& have hearing problems anyways, as fellow parterrians can verify) so i wouldn’t know which Sutherland “Casta diva” is on key or not. In fact, I never cared for sutherland or the casta diva, so i wouldn’t know what a good one was or not. And as far Bellini goes, i can’t help you much there either, sorry… maybe if there hadn’t have been a Donizetti …
      -- but Tchai’s Mazeppa & Syz’s Krol Roger, well that i could help you a great deal with…
      -- HAPPY BIRTHDAY BELLINI, anyway; he is in good company ’cause it’s also Monica (Tiger in lipstick) Vitti’s birthday as well as Larry (world champ boxer) Holmes birthday, too.

      • Camille says:

        Phoenix--any of Sutherland’s recordings are, as far as I know, in the original key Bellini intended for Casta Diva, key of G Major. Don’t worry about it--maybe someone else will post.

        Mazeppa and Khovanschina are tied, in my personal agenda, for the title of “Most Depressing Opera”. Only difference is that I give the palm to Mazeppa for “Most Exciting” and Khovanschina to “Least Exciting or Dangerously near Boring”. I know, I am a philistine that likes Bellini. And, I heard the Big K over 25 years ago, ‘cept for a Met radio performance. So, all things considered, I’m obliged to go back, hear it again, and re-evaluate. At least Olga should be good in the Watermuziek.

        Bye now, I have to go find a recipe and prepare Pasta alla Norma.