Intermezzo

intermezzoPittsburgh Festival Opera continues to make good on its promise of producing Richard Strauss rarities, and for the fourth consecutive summer has revived one of the composer’s lesser known works. The company last year set the bar as high as it seemingly could go with its magnificent performances of The Silent Woman, but that was pretty much the same impression the previous summer’s Capriccio performances left, as did Ariadne on Naxos the summer before. Next summer will see what the company can do with Arabella, but last night’s performance of Intermezzo (another Pennsylvania first) was a quite excellent evening of majestic music and comedy.

The story of Intermezzo is based (and only somewhat loosely) on misunderstandings which occurred between the composer and his wife. In the early 1900’s, a letter meant for a conductor was sent by a woman to Strauss in error. His wife opened and read the letter, and it was with the greatest of difficulty that Strauss was able to convince her of his innocence. A separate incident, involving Mrs. Strauss’ head being briefly turned by a man who later tried to get money from her, is incorporated into the mix. Strauss apparently thought that setting these events to music – without telling his wife the plot of his latest opera – was a good idea. The composer describes the work as a “Bürgerliche Komödie mit sinfonischen Zwischenspielen,” and that mouthful translates into a “bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes.”

Robert (Ryan Milstead) confronts Christine (Meghan DeWald) about the drawing that Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) made of her.
Robert (Ryan Milstead) confronts Christine (Meghan DeWald) about the drawing that Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) made of her.

Strauss’ usual librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wanted nothing to do with the project. Strauss was turned down by a couple of other writers, and one wrote text that wasn’t quite what Strauss had in mind. Hermann Bahr, a distinguished German critic and author, who had written the draft which hadn’t impressed Strauss, suggested that he write the book himself. Strauss becomes “Robert Storch,” a famous conductor in the finished opera, and his wife, Pauline, is represented by “Christine.” The story goes that after the opera premiered in Dresden in 1924, soprano Lotte Lehmann (who had just created the role of Christine) congratulated the startled Pauline Strauss on the “marvelous present” her husband had given her. There are a couple of versions of her response to Lehmann, all containing the word “damn.”

Like a number of his other operas, Strauss’ Intermezzo includes no overture – the singers hit the ground running within seconds of the orchestra’s first tones. The composer’s majestic orchestration, complex, ravishingly beautiful, and virtually continuous, is one of the finest features of this work, and it was played remarkably well and conducted with a thorough sympathy with the music by Brett McMunn. He has demonstrated before that he is quite capable of bringing Strauss’ colorful scores vividly to life, and he proved his abilities again last night. The stamina of the instrumentalists made his vision possible, and all are to be congratulated on a performance that greatly pleased the audience.

Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) bringing Christine (Meghan DeWald) flowers.
Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) bringing Christine (Meghan DeWald) flowers.

The lion’s share of the opera falls on the shoulders of the leading soprano role, Christine Storch. The part is astonishingly difficult. Almost continuously she must deliver a huge amount of text at a breakneck speed, with few moments of slowly sustained singing. Demanding half-spoken, half-sung “patter” to use of the uppermost flights of the soprano range in rafter-rattling fortissimo passages, it’s by no means a role for the faint of heart. Only the most highly skilled of singing actresses can hope to make a success of the part, and last night Meghan DeWald did exactly that. In voice, action, appearance and more she was outstanding. This remarkably gifted woman gave a performance encompassing the use of a magnificent voice and charming, comedic acting skills that aren’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon by those on hand last night to see and hear her.

Strauss modestly confines his counterpart, Robert Storch, the conductor, to a comparatively short portion of the first act, bringing him more to the fore in the second, but this does not mean that the role is an easy one. Ryan Milstead sang and acted the role quite well, and the chemistry between he and Ms. DeWald was rather enchanting, and the comic bickering between the two, which could not hide a deep and abiding love between the two characters, was great fun throughout. Maggie Burr, as Anna, the long-suffering maid, was a comic delight who sang the part well and did more acting with her face than many can do with their entire bodies. Jason Slayden, as “Baron Lummer,” the young Lothario type who briefly captures Christine’s half-hearted fancy, certainly looked the part and has a voice which is quite pleasing.

Ryan Milstead as Robert Storch.
Ryan Milstead as Robert Storch.

For the most part, the other roles are sung (or spoken), in the second act, and all were in the hands of artists who made the most of their opportunities – and the audience wish that their parts were larger. Adam Hollick was quite engaging as the lawyer Christine visits in her attempt to start divorce proceedings against the quite innocent Robert, and here again the entertaining results came largely through the chemistry he shared with Ms. DeWald. Others who came and went all too quickly were Elise Mark (the attorney’s wife), Robert Chafin (Stroh), Robert Gerold (A Commercial Counselor), Evan Koons (A Legal Counselor), Adam Cioffari (A Celebrated Singer), Marie Anello (Fanny), Lori Carrau (Marie) and Heather Hale (Resi). A charming young lad named Jake Blackledge spoke a few lines as the Storchs’ son Franzl, and won all when he offered his distraught mother a teddy bear.

The ensemble, including Thomas Cilluffo, Diego Del Valle, Kelsey Fredriksen, Chunghee Lee, Francesca Molinaro, John Teresi and Terriq White, had their work cut out for them, mainly in the shifting of the opera’s numerous scenes. Some of these were quite effective, and thanks to Hank Bullington’s innovative projection and scenic designs, the audience was treated to children (Maggie Belliston, Sasha Cowan, Lila Weber and Simon Weber) tobogganing in snow, and at one point saw a large opera audience staring back at them.

Only one performance remains – Sunday, July 23, at 2:30 p.m. Please see and hear this Strauss rarity that you’re not likely to have a chance at any time soon, locally or otherwise!

For tickets and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The Production Team for Intermezzo –

 Conductor, Brent McMunn; Director, Jonathan Eaton; English Translation, Andrew Porter; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Pianists, Stephen Variames and Soo-Yeon Park; Costume Design, Krista Ivan; Lighting Design, Madeleine Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Rikkilee Rose; Assistant Director, Eunbi Cho; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Lauren Wickett and Katy Click

Photography – Patti Brahim