However familiar the pages of Hello magazine may be, it is still considered bad taste for public figures to advertise their private lives. In the 1920s it was even more so. When Richard Strauss turned his domestic life into an opera, it raised eyebrows. How could anyone, especially a great composer, be so foolish as to expose himself and his wife to ridicule? But when Intermezzo, Strauss’s “bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes”, enjoys one of its rare revivals, it invariably leaves a warm afterglow, as much for its affectionate portrait of human foibles as for its cheerful triviality.
Scottish Opera’s production wisely resists comparisons with 21st-century life, preferring to locate the household of Robert and Christine Storch (alias Richard and Pauline Strauss) within the painterly world of Gustav Klimt, whose voluptuous figurations adorn the wallpaper. While superficially eye-catching, such fin de siècle sensuality seems an odd match for marital squabbling. The wirier aesthetic of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald, Scottish contemporaries of the Viennese Secession, would have been more appropriate, and one can’t help feeling Scottish Opera missed a trick.
That’s the risk you take when you import a director with no local knowledge. Wolfgang Quetes and his designer Manfred Kaderk nevertheless do a respectable job. A single box set proves versatile enough for the opera’s frequent scene changes, and the idiosyncrasies of Christine’s lifestyle are as neatly etched as the quirks of Robert’s cronies.
With a charismatic Christine, this would be enough. But Anita Bader lacks the size of personality to pull off the central role. What she offers is a one-dimensional portrait of shrewishness, so that we never understand what her long-suffering husband sees in her. And by opting for a German soprano, Scottish Opera boxes itself into a corner. While an otherwise Anglophone cast, led by Roland Wood’s excellent Storch and Nicky Spence’s suitably creepy Baron Lummer, articulate their conversational lines in clear German, this is an opera that needs to be sung in the language of the audience. It reflects poorly on the judgment of Scottish Opera’s music director, Francesco Corti, who makes Strauss’s rich cantilenas sound brassy and breathless.