Wednesday 11 July 2012

buxton Festival - Intermezzo

Stephen Gadd (Robert), Janis Kelly (Christine) in Intermezzo, Buxton Festival 2012
Stephen Gadd (Robert) and Janis Kelly (Christine)
Richard Strauss's opera Intermezzo is still a relative rareity in the UK, having not yet had a London production. Strauss intended the opera as a very human, modern, psychological comedy of character and based it on an event in his own life; the text set in a way which ensured the conversational character of the piece. But he found it difficult to find a librettist, and ended up writing the words himself. And after the first performance (in Munich in 1924), despite the work's success, there was a view that the work was tasteless. This attitude has, in the past, impeded the work's performance but times and attitudes have changed. Intermezzo is regarded as one of Strauss's greatest works and it is to Buxton's credit that they have assembled such a strong account of the work. The production, conducted by Stephen Barlow and directed by Stephen Unwin, debuted on 7 July and I saw the second performance on 10 July.

Another reason why the work is still performed relatively infrequently is the nature of Strauss's writing, both for the voices and for the instruments. He seems to have conceived of the work as a chamber, domestic piece. It was premiered in the smaller of the two Munich state theatres and the orchestral forces call for just strings with just 11 first violins, 8 woodwind, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp and piano. But Strauss makes his small orchestra work very hard and the series of intermezzos between the scenes, 12 in all, call for some supremely virtuoso playing. At the pre-concert talk, Stephen Barlow talked about the way Strauss writes so that the orchestra sounds far bigger than it is. And it is the orchestra which is the enginehouse of this opera, playing a prime role not only in the intermezzi but in the operatic scenes as well.

With the exception of the very end, Strauss set the entire work conversationally, letting the dialogue flow at a realistic pace and with no arias, hardly even arioso. It is the orchestra which fills in the gaps for us, expanding and commenting on the character's emotions, point up things which are unsaid, or unexpressed. The libretto is not conventionally 'operatic', the characters never express what they are feeling. He used this style elsewhere, of course, but in Intermezzo he used it exclusively. The result, put quite simply, is that there are a lot of notes and no arias. The role of Christine, who is on stage in 11 of the 14 scenes, is a huge part to learn. Despite the opera's comparative brevity (around two hours of music), the role of Christine is one of the biggest in Strauss, but it must be sung in a way that does not make it seem big. No grand gestures or grandstanding here, but a domestic scale comedy.

In many ways, the piece is like a play, albeit one with an extra character in the form of the orchestra. So it was perhaps apt that director Stephen Unwin has a career directing both opera and spoken theatre. His production was simple and direct, concentrating on details. The set, by designer Paul Wills, was a simple floor and backdrop of bleached wood, evoking the wooden construction of the sort of houses you'd find in an Austrian lake-side town. Against the backdrop we would occasionally see rain or snow, but that was the extent of the set; though John Bishop's lighting was marvellously evocative. But each scene was carefully dressed with period furniture and house-hold details (the production was set in the period of the opera's premiere). So that in the opening scene Robert (Stephen Gadd) was packing real clothes and items as he had the long discussion/argument with his wife Christine (Janis Kelly). As they talked she fiddled with perfume bottles on her dressing table, had coffee from tiny cups. Later, when Robert finished dressing he had to apply a real stiff collar with studs. This continued throughout the opera, as the realistic dialogue was counterpointed by realism in the setting and the action. Essentially Unwin was taking Strauss's opera and treating it just the way you would treat one of the serious, naturalistic plays from the late 19th, early 20th century such as a piece by Pinero.  I should add that the opera was sung in Andrew Porter's English translation and throughout the cast's diction was excellent, thus ensuring maximum comprehensibility.

Perhaps my favourite moment was during the closing scenes, when the couple were reconciling and eating a meal together. This involved Kelly and Gadd eating real food, forcing Kelly to look supremely expressive with a mouthul of food; something she did with great dignity, humour and expressivity.

It is in the role of Christine that any production of Intermezzo stands or falls and in Janis Kelly, singing the role for the first time. Kelly brought humour and pathos to the role, but also a core of strength. At its centre was her singing of Strauss's vocal line with admirable clarity of line and firmness; she had the ability to spin the long lines at the end but also sang the conversational  passages with similar sense of line. But it is in the emotional range that the character of Christine really challenges, Kelly really did turn on a sixpence when it came to Christine's bewildering emotional turmoil. It would be easy to play the character either as a termagent or as a comic buffoon. But Kelly brought great care and sympathy to the role, engendering a sense of naturalism. Even when she was at her angriest, we could see the emotions underneath; whatever she said, it was clear that Kelly's Christine really did care for her husband. Kelly's performance was a tour de force, but one that wasn't showy, as she performed Christine she did not cry 'look at me' but presented the character in all its richness with a naturalism which implied that she had been singing the role all her life.

In this Kelly was extremely well supported by Stephen Gadd. The role of Robert is by no means as large as that of Christine, he just doesn't get as much stage time (after all act one is set in Austria and for most of the period Robert is away in Berlin). Robert is also rather more phlegmatic than his wife. But Gadd, as he has shown in the past, has a way of making rather stolid, phelgmatic middle-aged men be expressive. He beautifully conveyed the love for Christine which underpinned everything else. Then, of course, when he got the telegram announcing Christine is leaving him, all hell broke lose and did so in a profoundly believable and touching fashion.

In the closing scene of the opera, Strauss wrote some of his most glorious music, another one of his deeply transfigurative climaxes. But this time, instead of two voices weaving in and out, he restricts the vocal lines; generally Robert and Christine remained conversational with the expression all in the orchestra. When Christine was allowed to venture into classic Strauss cantilena, Kelly did so beautifully, but the interaction between the two singers was expression enough, a reflection of the emotions being poured out in the orchestra.

Janis Kelly (Christine), Andrew Kennedy (Baron Lummer) in Intermezzo, Buxton Festival 2012
Janis Kelly (Christine), Andrew Kennedy (Baron Lummer)
Andrew Kennedy was wonderfully charming as the roguish Baron Lummer, the young man on the make. Believable and personable, Kennedy was quite convincing as someone Christine might fall for. And in all things he remained polite and dignified, as he should.

Susanne Holmes was notable in the role of Anna, Robert and Christine's maid. She was one of the few people who stood up to Christine, and Holmes did so in a characterful and expressive way. Holmes's body language showing a great deal of what the character was not saying, but would like to. Anna isn't a huge role, but it is quite a meaty one in the right hands and Holmes was perfect, strongly characterised without ever taking focus away from the principals.

Jonathan Best was strong casting as the Notary, again his body language showed everything he wasn't saying in his scene with Christine when she comes to ask for a divorce.

All of the other smaller roles were very well taken Njabulo Madlala (a previous Ferrier Award Winner) was the Kammersinger, Jeremy Huw Williams the commerical counsellor, Richard Roberts was Stroh, the man who caused all the problems in the first place, Colin Brockie the legal counsellor, Matha McLorinan the notary's wife, Hanna Sawle was a very pert cook, Sophie Goldrick was Marie and local boy, Charlie Hodginson was very apt as Richard and Christine's son Franzl.

The other great heroes of the evening were Stephen Barlow and the Northen Chamber Orchestra, playing with a body of strings just slightly below Strauss's specifications, but never for a moment seeming either underpowered or lacking in emotion. Intermezzo is clearly a work that Barlow both knows and loves, he coaxed the best out of the orchestra and the intermezzos were all intensely characterised and contained some fine playing. So much so that the audience did actually seem to obey his injunction (given at the pre-concert talk) to keep quiet and really listen. The Northern Chamber Orchestra poured forth a torrent of glorious music, as if there were far more of them in the pit. A triumph indeed.

Intermezzo isn't a showy work, it requires careful detailed work. It got that from Barlow, Unwin and all their performers, just showing what the Buxton Festival at the peak of its form can really achieve.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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