S&H Opera review

Richard Strauss: Intermezzo, Garsington, July 2001 (H-T W)

This is the first of three reviews from English Country Opera Festivals by Hans-Theodore Wohlfahrt (MB).

The English phenomenon of privately funded summer Country House Opera Festivals blossoms despite the unpredictable weather. Not even rain or cold winds can harm the ambience of high class opera within an arcadian landscape combined with a 90 minutes dinner interval. This season, each of the three most important festivals gave us a new production - each of an astonishing artistic standard.

Garsington Opera has been sheer delight since Leonard Ingrams founded the festival in 1989. Set in the beautiful garden of his Jacobean country house, Garsington Manor near Oxford, not even the 13th season could bring it bad luck. Once again it achieved one of those rare artistic surprises Garsington Opera has become known for over the years.

Next to Mozart, Haydn and Rossini it is Richard Strauss, whose smaller and more rarely performed operas, have dominated repertoire in the past. This year, it was the turn of Intermezzo, a domestic comedy with symphonic interludes in two acts, which had received its world premiere in Dresden on November 4th, 1924. After Die Frau ohne Schatten (1917), Strauss decided for his next opera to compose something extremely realistic, even very personal and biographical as he had done in his Sinfonia domestica (1903). The rough draft for Intermezzo dates back to 1916 with the idea of combining two episodes in the relationship between him and his extrovert, temperamental and jealous wife Pauline, of which one episode nearly led to divorce. Strauss asked his favourite collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal for a libretto; he declined and suggested the German poet Hermann Bahr. However, Bahr realised quite quickly that only Strauss would be able to find the right words for this thoroughly private enterprise. Richard Strauss agreed and wrote his own libretto.

Gratefully, Garsington Opera demonstrated taste and did not come up with an English translation, which would have made mockery out of the every day conversation Strauss deliberately chose. Instead, and for the first time, carefully written surtitles helped the audience to understand the action of this bittersweet comedy. Again, as with the four previous Strauss productions, the conductor Elgar Howarth and the producer and designer David Fielding were in charge, while the Garsington Opera Orchestra, which incorporates the Guildhall Strings, met the exacting requirements. The cast could not have been better: Yvonne Kenny (Christine alias Pauline Strauss), the superb Norwegian baritone Tom Erik Lie (Hofkapellmeister Robert Storch alias Richard Strauss), Lynda Russell (the Chambermaid, Anna), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Baron Lummer) and James Oxley (Kapellmeister Stroh alias Kapellmeister Edmund von Strauss) sang and acted impeccably. Minor parts were equally memorable but what surprised was the uniform excellence of the cast's German diction which brought Richard Strauss´ intentions vividly to life.

As Garsington Opera is an open-air event using the loggia and the terrace of the Manor House as a natural stage, there is no curtain; scene changes have to be kept to a minimum, while the whole opera has to cope with a single basic design. David Fielding opted for a huge cut-out frontage of a typical Upper Bavarian farm house; its endless doors and windows as well as its wide roof gave him full scope for a contemporary kind of commedia dell´ arte without ever being tasteless. The rich and powerful symphonic interludes as a contrast to the fluency of the conversations on stage belong to the best music Strauss ever composed; in Elgar Howarth they found an ideal interpreter, who never over-stretched the orchestra. His sensitivity for the balance between the parlando of the plot and the symphonic-programmatic character of the interludes, with all their witty quotations, proved to be an important contribution to this Garsington success story.

Hans-Theodore Wohlfahrt

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