This week we dig deep into the mature works of Richard Strauss: his 1924 Intermezzo, labeled a “bürgerliche Komödie mit sinfonischen Zwischenspielen.” The glorious and beloved Elisabeth Söderström tackles the fiendishly difficult role of Christine in a 1974 performance from Glyndebourne conducted by John Pritchard sung in English.
Strauss himself wrote the libretto based on real events in his life. The story is a fluffy drawing room comedy about a shrewish wife’s jealousy over an affair by her husband, who happens to be a composer with the initials R.S., Robert Storch. It is eventually revealed that in a simple case of mistaken identity the damning correspondence was meant for another musician with the similar surname of Stroh. The opera ends with renewed vows of love by the couple.
Lotte Lehmann, who created Christine, is reported to have congratulated Strauss’ notoriously bitchy wife, Pauline, on receiving such a gift, to which she replied, “I don’t give a damn.”
Remembered mainly for its orchestral interludes, it is rarely performed, chalking up a mere 31 performances by Wiener Staatsoper between 1927 and 1963. Lehmann sang it 16 times, and in the post-war performances, all of which were given at Theater an der Wien, the role belonged to Hilde Zadek and Hanny Steffek
It is in that smaller house where I had my only encounter with the opera in 2008. Soile Isokowski withdrew from the production in early rehearsals, and soon Regisseur Christof Loy walked out. On opening night, the theater’s director, Roland Geyer, stepped before the curtain to thank Carola Glaser for jumping in at short notice: the theater had been able to locate only two women in all of Europe who knew the role, and only one was available. Robert Storch was sung by Bo Skovhus. Kirill Petrenko presided over the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien.
Söderström is one of those unforgettable singers who had a strange Met career: a debut in 1959 and a farewell to opera 40 years later, but with absences of 20 years and then another decade in the middle.
She debuted as Mozart’s Susanna and was soon assigned Marguerite in Faust, Musetta, Adina, Sophie, Rosalinda, and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, the last two of which were sung in English (until 1970, the Met gave the Prolog to Ariadne in English and the Oper auf Deutsch).
Between 1964 and her return as the Marschallin on the Met’s 1983 annual spring tour, her voice and reputation grew and she established herself as one of Sweden’s greatest exports throughout the opera world. She became known as a Janá?ek specialist, and her Decca recordings as Jenufa, Kát’a, and Emily Marty under Charles Mackerras all won Gramophone Awards.
Her first performances in the now-not-quite-so-new house at Lincoln Center were as Ellen Orford opposite Jon Vickers, many of which I attended. She also sang the Marschallin in the Rosenkavalier trio at the Met’s Centennial Gala with Frederica von Stade and Kathleen Battle. She was a member of that rare handful of singers who sang, in chronological order, Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin.
She then repriesed Le nozze di Figaro, this time as the Contessa, brought her Marschallin to the house with Brigitte Fassbaender and Barbara Hendricks, and then disappeared again for a dozen years.
In 1990, I nabbed a subscription for a vocal recital series at Alice Tully Hall to assure a ticket to hear sensational newcomer Cecilia Bartoli. Another recitalist – I can’t remember who – withdrew at short notice and Söderström jumped in. It was 12 May 1991, Mothers’ Day, and she ingenuously cobbled together a glorious program of songs and arias in a multitude of languages that all dealt with some aspect of motherhood.
Shortly before her 72nd birthday, she rejoined the Met for her farewell to the stage: seven shows as the Countess in Pique Dame with Plácido Domingo and Galina Gorchakova. The final performance of the run was telecast and preserved for posterity.
She died in Stockholm at the age of 82 in 2009.
Post scriuptum: last Monday’s upload was derailed by an Internet outage, but I did manage to post the München Tannhäuser with Klaus Florian Vogt and Anja Harteros. You can catch it here: h