Towards the end of Richard Strauss's Intermezzo, the autobiographical hero, Storch, tells his wife that "the tragedy has turned into burlesque", and David Fielding, in his new production at Garsington, takes the hint. The long and slightly too exalted duet that ends this homely conversation-piece – a kind of "Ariadne in Garmisch" – is duly sent up, with the Storches in wedding kit framed by rose-wreaths and a huge gold ring, inscribed "Robert and Christine". As so often, the director condescends...
Of course, a work that chronicles a misunderstood telegram and a non-existent infidelity as melodramatised by a bored and quarrelsome wife is never anything like a tragedy, and Fielding is at his skilful best using the limitations of Garsington's lean-to semi-open-air stage as an excuse to mount the work in the spirit of a school revue, with a single discreet backcloth (a snowy pine-clad slope), two or three sticks of furniture, some witty cut-outs, and a certain amount of fancy dress (I loved the toboggans sliding to disaster down the sloping top of the backdrop, while Christine's ostrich costume for the ball elevates kitsch to the level of genius).
All this carries the piece along merrily. More important, Fielding and the conductor, Elgar Howarth, have read Strauss's preface to the score, which argues passionately for tactful orchestral shading and audible voices. Intermezzo is a very prosy work, but I've rarely heard any foreign-language opera performance in which so much – words and musical detail – could be heard and followed. And whatever you think of the general level of inspiration in this opera domestica, the way it's made is unerring in its intricacy and precision. Howarth conducts with huge vitality and delicacy, using the smallest body of strings he can get away with, and achieving a chamber-music quality beyond what even Strauss might have thought possible.
For the singers, this is a godsend. Yvonne Kenny can glide through the non-stop role of Christine, with glorious lyrical fluency, and never any fear the tank will run dry. Hers is also a clever reading of what must be, in many ways, a maddening role. In the early scenes, I felt she was missing the emotional frustration and misery of the under-appreciated wife. But gradually she turns the play-acting into neurosis, and by the end, one would like to throttle her – which is the required audience response.
Storch himself is played beautifully, with charm and urbanity, by a young Norwegian baritone, Tom Erik Lie. Baron Lummer, who wheedles himself into Christine's good graces but fails to open her pocket, is a nice portrait of freeloading by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts. And there are accurate, well-sung vignettes from, among others, Lynda Russell, Andrew Slater and James Oxley. Perhaps the ending spoils the tone a little. But there is a lot to spoil.
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