No, it’s not about Ella Fitzgerald, great though she was.
New Yorkers and those who can get there have a rare opportunity to see and hear one of Richard Strauss’ more unusual operas, “Intermezzo,” (Opus 72) at the New York City Opera from October 31 through November 20.
Strauss called it “a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes in two acts.” This nakedly autobiographical tale, with libretto by the composer, has the “smaller” dimensions of chamber opera, and few of the lush sweeping melodies for which Strauss had become famous in previous works like “Der Rosenkavalier,” and “Ariadne auf Naxos”.
Finished in 1923 and premiered in 1924 in Dresden, the score demands absolute clarity of diction in passages of quasi-parlando called “Sprechgesang” (speech-singing). It’s not quite as Halloween-y as the “Sprechstimme” utilized by Schoenberg in “Pierrot Lunaire.” Whether the language is intelligible, even over Strauss’ “lighter” orchestration is up to the singers. As a rule, it hasn’t joined the standard repertoire outside of German-speaking countries. City Opera will perform the work in English (with English supertitles as well).
The story is about a minor marital incident in Strauss’ life with his often shrewish wife, Pauline de Ahna. Strauss becomes composer/conductor “Robert Storch” (same initials, if there was any doubt) and she becomes “Christine.” The wife constantly nags her husband about his busy touring schedule, yet she feels curiously lonely once he’s gone.
Apparently, de Ahna, descended from a minor titled family, felt that having married a “mere” composer lowered her social standing, and she often reminded Strauss of the fact. To top that off, she had minimal artistic appreciation of his musical gift and she resented his celebrity.
To console herself during one of the husband’s absences, Christine begins a flirtation with a “Baron,” who turns out to be a money-less mooch. Meanwhile, she receives a letter that seems to be addressed to her husband from a “courtesan” requesting two opera tickets, signed with intimate terms of endearment.
Naturally, the letter was meant for a different conductor, and our henpecked husband is in the clear. Not so for the wife, whose mate then magnanimously suggests that she give the “Baron” the money he wanted after all. All is forgiven.
Important characterizations appear in the orchestral interludes, which expose and combine various themes that tell us more emotionally than the actual “speech-song.” Such domestic matters presented on the opera stage by a master whose previous efforts were grand mythological or period pieces (“Salome,” “Elektra,” “Ariadne,” “Rosenkavalier”) led to much incomprehension and sneering at the premiere. The whole thing was seen as trivial and (gasp!) sentimental.
Strauss genuinely wanted to succeed in a genre like operetta, the lighter form popularized by his unrelated namesake, Johann Strauss Jr., or Offenbach. As he wrote to his collaborator Hugo von Hoffmansthal: “. . . you’ll probably say Kitsch. But we musicians are known for our bad taste in aesthetic matters.”
The opening scene of the second act shows the composer playing the card game Skat (similar to bridge and poker both) with colleagues. The game was a major passion of Strauss, so much so that he loathed being recognized more for that than for his music.
The Strauss marriage appears to have worked “for them,” with Strauss needing the temperamental “push” provided by his wife. As Storch says: “She’s a jewel in a rough setting.” When Lotte Lehmann (who premiered the role of Christine) ventured to say to Pauline that her husband had given her a beautiful “love letter” with the piece, Pauline replied “I don’t give a damn!” At least she didn’t start with “Frankly, my dear . . .”
There is a weird moment of anti-Semitism when Christine accuses her ever-touring husband of “wandering like a Jew.” Just at that moment, the orchestra quotes Schumann’s First Symphony. Many have commented that, of course, Schumann was not Jewish, so why did Strauss put in that reference, since he must have known that. I prefer Strauss biographer Norman del Mar’s proposal that it is intentional and shows Christine’s musical ignorance.
Let’s give Lotte Lehmann the last word: “He loved her truly and profoundly, and the words he wrote for his opera ‘Intermezzo’ came from the depths of his own faithful heart. This is what I call a happy marriage.” From City Opera to Dr. Phil?
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs