She calls him “plebeian”. He dismisses her as “disgusting”. The exchange has the flavour of soap opera or reality television, but the insults come from Intermezzo, Richard Strauss’s dramatisation of his own marriage. In the characters of Robert and Christine Storch, Strauss created a domestic self-portrait so revealing that his wife Pauline was scandalised by the work’s premiere at Dresden in 1924.
His “bourgeois comedy” – a subtitle chosen by Strauss, then at the height of his celebrity – could not have been further from the conventional operatic plot. The Buxton Festival’s new production helps us understand why Intermezzo was so far in advance of its time, and why its real-life scenario still seems modern.
The ultimate connoisseur’s opera, Intermezzo has yet to be staged by any of London’s companies, but it suits Buxton, the most pleasurable and least pretentious of the UK’s opera festivals. A former spa town surrounded by the Peak District’s glorious landscapes, Buxton has a history of espousing unfashionable repertoire, and its Edwardian opera house, renovated a decade ago, is perfect for the conversational intimacies of the Strauss household.
Intermezzo is almost an anti-opera: it lacks recognisable arias or conventional drama. And yet Strauss, who (unusually) wrote his own libretto, had the genius to make something original out of the real-life twists and turns of his everyday surroundings. In the eyes of his colleagues, Pauline Strauss was a harridan. What he proved, in the music of Intermezzo, was that behind an impossibly irrational and irritable exterior, she was a lovable and devoted wife. Their marriage lasted 55 years, until Strauss’s death in 1949.
Stephen Unwin’s staging uses minimal resources to create a clear sense of place and period. Paul Willis’s set consists of little more than bleached boards peppered with a few pieces of furniture, but thanks to John Bishop’s ingenious lighting, the atmosphere of bedroom, toboggan run and Viennese Prater comes across vividly, and Strauss’s quasi-cinematic scene-changes flow seamlessly. The language of performance is English – the only sensible option for a piece consisting solely of dialogue – and every word is audible.
The role of Christine Storch could have been written for Janis Kelly: she captures the self-pity, the haughtiness, the pathos, as well as the strident tone of a character who would be easy to caricature but comes across here as intensely human. It is one of the best things Kelly has done. Stephen Gadd’s Robert is short on vocal colour but has everything else – physical presence, quiet confidence, transparent goodness. Andrew Kennedy turns Baron Lummer into an unbearably smiley snake, while Susanne Holmes’s Anna and Jonathan Best’s Notary provide strong cameos. Despite thin-sounding strings, the orchestral performance under Stephen Barlow has an easy Straussian authority.
If Intermezzo is the hit of this summer’s festival, the double-bill of Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschei the Immortal ranks as a deep disappointment. The pairing was inspired: both operas explore the fairy-tale symbolism of imprisoning a female innocent, and both have an identical cast of five. The chance to hear Sibelius’s only opera, a 35-minute fantasy previously unstaged in the UK, was valuable: the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Stuart Stratford revealed its kinship with Karelia and Kullervo. But the efforts of conductor and cast, led by Richard Berkeley-Steele, Kate Ladner and Owen Gilhooly, were nullified by Stephen Lawless’s nonsensical and insufferably pretentious staging.