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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Intermezzo (1924)
Felicity Lott (soprano) – Christine
John Pringle (bar) – Robert Storch
Ian Caley (tenor) – Baron Lummer
Elizabeth Gale (soprano) - Anna
Glyndebourne Festival Opera
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustav Kuhn
rec. live, Glyndebourne, 1983
Director: John Cox
Region Code: 2,3,4,5; Aspect Ratio: 4:3; LPCM Stereo
WARNER CLASSICS 5051442 885729 [154:00]
Experience Classicsonline

It’s unlikely that Intermezzo will ever be anyone’s favourite Strauss opera, but it’s at the very least a fascinating work with lots of lush Straussian melodies, and it’s given a marvellous performance here.
 
Not untypically from a composer who was never exactly modest, Intermezzo is an autobiographical piece which drew inspiration from a real-life incident in the Strauss family.  Once when Strauss was away on a tour of England a telegram arrived at his house from a lady named Meinz Mücke asking for a pair of opera tickets in Berlin.  Pauline, Strauss’s notoriously difficult wife, found it and jumped to the conclusion that her husband was involved in an affair which she had finally discovered.  She immediately sent him a telegram demanding a divorce. The affair was finally sorted out when it was discovered that the telegram was meant for Josef Stransky: the woman had mixed up their names in the directory and sent the telegram to the wrong address.
 
The opera mirrors the real-life situation almost exactly.  Robert Storch is Strauss himself, while Christine is Pauline.  The misdirected telegram is meant for Herr Stroh at the opera and when Christine finds it she sets in motion the plans for a swift divorce.  It is only when Herr Stroh travels to the family home at Grundlsee that the confusion is cleared up.  Pauline herself seems to have been unaware of the opera’s subject until its premiere.  Perhaps unsurprisingly she was not best pleased when she found out.  After the premiere, Lotte Lehmann, who sang Christine for the first performance only, congratulated Pauline on the “marvellous present from your husband”.  Pauline allegedly replied, “I don’t give a damn”.  The real theme of the opera, however, is the steadfast love between Strauss and his wife.  The opening and closing scenes show the couple alone in the house squabbling and falling out, but making up and showing the strength of their enduring love in the end.  In the final scene, in particular, Robert stands up to Christine rather than letting her win for the sake of peace, and this only makes her love and respect him all the more.  This takes place to the accompaniment of some gloriously surging string melodies that we associate with Strauss’s later period; perhaps surprising when we consider that Intermezzo comes firmly from his middle period. 
 
This performance is the release of a BBC recording of the opera from Glyndebourne in 1983.  It is performed in Andrew Porter’s English translation. This has the advantage of bringing the opera right up close to our experience and making it easier for us to both understand and identify with, though subtitles are also on offer if you’re struggling.  John Cox’s production places this firmly in Strauss’s own time, the 1920s, with fashions and setting all impeccably observed.  It also preserves the magnificent performance of Dame Felicity Lott as Christine.  Lott sings this role as if it was written for her.  Her singing is beautiful when it comes to the soaring love melodies, but shrill and bad tempered for the frequent scenes where she thinks she is being hard done by.  She also acts the part most convincingly and shows great comic timing in the 6th scene of Act 1 when she is choosing a rented room for her protégé.  Furthermore her diction is impeccable, making every word clear and immediate.  She is matched by the equally skilled John Pringle as her husband.  His diction is similarly excellent and his baritone voice has a solid and dependable ring to it, but also conveys the virility and excitement with which Strauss surely wanted himself to be seen.  The final scene, when he slowly but surely wins Christine over, is really masterly.  The lesser roles are taken very convincingly too.  Elizabeth Gale is a very musical maid who reacts with humour to all of Christine’s abuse.  I wasn’t so convinced by the affected accents of the other serving staff, though I’m assured that their German equivalent exists in the original libretto.  Ian Caley gives a thoroughly well rounded performance as Baron Lummer, the young man who threatens to de-stabilise Christine’s equilibrium in her husband’s absence.  His light tenor begins in a thoroughly romantic, exciting vein, but as the opera progresses he becomes more boorish and irritating, as Christine must surely have seen him.  The lesser roles, including the Notary and Strauss’s companions at the card party, are all sung and acted very well indeed.
 
Gustav Kuhn shows himself to be a skilled Strauss interpreter with an eye to the architecture of the piece: he is especially good at shaping the symphonic interludes which separate each scene.  Similarly the London Philharmonic play with all the surging neo-Romantic opulence that this music needs.  Be warned, though: the picture quality on the disc is rather grainy and unclear, and the stereo sound is adequate but a bit boxy by modern standards.  The production’s age might be an excuse for this, but that’s really not good enough for today.
 
Sawallisch’s studio recording on EMI - with Lucia Popp and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing in the original German - is still the most reliable version in the catalogue, though it’s currently unavailable.  Let’s hope that EMI reissue it soon, and that they provide an English translation with the libretto, a shocking omission in this of all Strauss operas where the dialogue is so important.  Recently, however, Orfeo have released a live recording from Bavaria starring Hanny Steffek and Hermann Prey, conducted by Joseph Keilberth.  I haven’t heard this, but it’s bound to be a fascinating take on this quizzical but profoundly satisfying work.  Anyone wanting the work in English or on a DVD can be very happy with this present issue.
 
Simon Thompson
 

 


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