Intermezzo, New York City Opera, New York

Richard Strauss did not call Intermezzo an opera. Significantly, he called it a Bürgerliche Komödie mit sinfonischen Zwischenspielen – a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes.

Rarely performed, it is strange, charming and fragile, essentially a love letter to his fearsome wife, Pauline. Thinly disguised as Christine Storch in this quasi-autobiographical comedy of eros and errors, she is volatile, brash, prim, egocentric, abusive yet devoted to her noble mate. The composer, who wrote his own libretto, masquerades as one Robert Storch. Note the initials.

Intermezzo might be dismissed as a big in-joke were it not for its brightly idealised portraiture, its innovative manipulation of parlando devices and, above all, its expanded orchestral entr’actes – some folksy-witty and some unabashedly heroic. The best way to treat this intricate charade must be to play it straight. Leon Major’s production, introduced at the Glimmerglass Festival in 1990, imported to the City Opera in 1999 and revived here on Sunday, prefers a cartoonish approach. The staging, decorated with Andrew Jackness’s skeletal designs, is always clever, though the busy work executed by supernumeraries during scene changes remains annoying.

Although Mary Dunleavy’s lovely soprano has triumphed in numerous lyric-coloratura challenges, Christine is not one of them. The role, created in 1924 by Lotte Lehmann, demands a bigger, richer voice. Dunleavy works hard and looks terrific in her inappropriate flapper costumes (the action is advanced here from 1907 to the time of the Dresden premiere). Unfortunately, her tone often turns shrill under pressure at the top and it evaporates at the lower depths. Histrionically she tends to reduce the tempestuous ex-diva to a petulant soubrette, and she swallows much of Andrew Porter’s stilted British translation. Nicholas Pallesen remains properly staunch as the long-suffering, eternally infatuated hero, while Andrew Bidlack emerges properly fatuous as the caddish Baron Lummer.

George Manahan whips up snazzy storms in the pit, inspiring much verve if little finesse from a rather scrappy orchestra. A few more rehearsals might have been helpful. ()

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