Thursday, November 04, 2010

Local edition

Intermezzo -- New York City Opera, 10/31/10
Dunleavy, Pallesen, Bidlack, Klein / Manahan

Bottom line first: Leon Major's production of this Strauss rarity is -- as it was in its 1999 debut -- the most charming show I've ever seen at the opera, and its current deeply-undersold state is a travesty. Don't expect any grandiosity, but do go. Now the details.

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Richard Strauss knocked out his domestic opera at the end of the Great War, right on the heels of completing two great Hofmannsthal collaborations: Die Frau ohne Schatten and the revised (with new prologue) standalone version of Ariadne auf Naxos (originally an interlude to a Moliere adaptation). The libretto, in this case, was his own, and much is often made of its unusual everyday realism -- adapting a farcical episode from early in Strauss' own marriage. But what's really striking is the opera's continuity with Strauss' better-known works. Musically, not only does Intermezzo's conversational style derive from the Ariadne prologue but one hears in the material both echoes of the past (Rosenkavalier, Frau) and premonitions of the future (Arabella, Capriccio) -- and not the worst bits of those, either. Literarily, too, the piece is another re-spin of the formula Strauss carried through from Der Rosenkavalier to Capriccio: a not-always-humorous comedy about relationships, centered around an incarnation or two of his prime subject, the Eternal-Feminine.

It is, of course, a rather more earthly version of the formula, with exactly none of the subtle and high-minded exploration of myth, civilization, and art that Hofmannsthal and his successors put into the collaborations. Instead we get Strauss' characteristically plain and bemused view of the humanity around his temporarily upset household.

So it's little surprise that the eternal feminine here appears in a rather local and temporal form (very different from Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Strauss' wife in FrOSch as the Dyer's wife). But Strauss' music, particularly in the great orchestral interludes, tells us in unmistakable detail that as absurd, exasperating, and oblivious as "Christine" (Pauline) may at times be, she shares the same heart and infinitely-shaded cares as her grander imaginary siblings. And how could she not?

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In this season's revival, Mary Dunleavy stars as a beautifully-sung and essentially charming Christine. She lacks the grand self-absorption that made Lauren Flanigan the utter center of the original run, but charm and flightiness make their own sense. And if Dunleavy does not dominate, it's also because the rest of the cast--including young baritone Nicholas Pallesen, an unjustly passed-over finalist in the now-famous 2007 Met Council Finals--makes an equally strong impression, without weak links.

George Manahan gets a commendable sonic sheen from the City Opera orchestra, if not quite the strongest waltz rhythms etc. (it's neither, after all, Levine's Met nor the Vienna Phil). He does, however, share with most of the principals blame for the one noticeable flaw in this revival: despite employing Andrew Porter's English translation and an all-American cast, and despite Strauss' expressed concern for the audibility of this deliberately conversational piece's text, the comprehensible-diction percentage of the show was about 15 points lower than it should have been. (And Dunleavy was, contra Steve Smith, one of the prime offenders.) Neither conductor nor singers should be making the audience of a native-language show depend on the supertitles, and more care in holding down accompaniment volume on the one hand and emphasizing clear diction on the other would here yield big theatrical dividends.

That said, as the bottom line already suggested, there's no excuse to miss this delightful show (if the staging of the ice-skating scene doesn't win you over, you may be Scrooge). In fact, we and NYCO should also be selling Intermezzo to those suspicious of the elaborate grandeur of standard opera fare...

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.