Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Intermezzo Soprano

From the Vault Dept.: Among the current offerings at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY, is Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos,” which I look forward to seeing this weekend. Meanwhile, let’s remember a visit to Strauss that the company made in 1990, long before its current artistic staff was in place, unlike my abhorrence of bad stage business, which remains my constant companion.


RICHARD STRAUSS’S “INTERMEZZO,” first performed in 1924, is a long, languorous soap opera of a piece that is almost entirely based on autobiographical elements.

Richard Strauss
It is not often performed, so the Glimmerglass Opera production that opened Saturday offers a rare chance to see this unusually-constructed, gorgeous-sounding work.

For soprano Lauren Flanigan, making her first appearance with the company, it is an unqualified triumph. She sings the role of Christine Storch, the central character of the piece (based on Strauss’ ill-tempered wife, Pauline) and from first to last displays an extraordinary voice and acting ability to match.

She obviously understands the subtleties of the score and brings out a satisfying, multidimensional aspect to her character. And she saved enough energy for a powerful finish.

This opera is taxing. Vocally, the leads have the challenges of a Wagner opera. Musically, the orchestra has to crank out a score that is horribly difficult. Conductor Stewart Robertson did a fantastic job shaping the piece, pulling off the kind of task for which there should be the musical equivalent of an Academy Award.

Only toward the very end were some cracks and squeaks of tired players evident, which only proved how hard they’d all been working.

James Busterud sang the role of Christine’s husband and effected his characteristic transitions very well. He got a little light in voice at the very end, but it didn’t dim the power of the beautifully-written reconciliation.

The role of Baron Lummer, Christine’s confused companion, was given an amusing sense of Viennese dignity by tenor Barton Green, who, like Flanigan, showed an excellent acting ability as well as a talented voice.

Other notable talents in the cast are Rosemary Barenz as Anna (an easy-to-overlook but important role) and Harry Danner as Conductor Stroh.

What the Glimmerglass Opera has here is 75 percent of a triumph. Unfortunately, the other quarter borders on wretchedness.

The top-of-the-program people, with a significant exception, did a breathtaking job. Set designer Andrew Jackness solved the multiple-set problem (there are nine different locations called for) with taste and wit. Costume designer Martha Mann made skillful use of color complement the sets and comment on characters.

But stage director Leon Major seemed intent on trashing the dignity of the piece with some of the most tragically inappropriate business I’ve even seen.

He took a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach that leaves me scratching my head, wondering if he really appreciates music. The opera is structured in a series of 14 scenes of varying length separated by orchestral interludes (and an intermission). The interludes serve as abstract comments on the action just seen while weaving a transition to the action to come.

During the scenes themselves, the singers were generally well placed and moved well. But the supernumeraries used to change the scenes during the interludes were given dreadfully distracting things to do. It wasn’t enough, for example, to fly a chandelier: the housemaid was given a piece of business with a telephone as if she’s calling – what? Heaven? Some guy crouched in the fly space? – to hoist the lamp.

The supers were sent out on stage on roller skates between scenes two and three. One of them juggled. In effect, Major was saying to the audience, “I fear you’ll be bored during these interludes, so here’s a distraction.”

Memo to Leon: the interludes are intended to do their own work and must be afforded the opportunity to do so. All that vest-tugging and feather-duster business is the territory of “No, No, Nanette,” not “Intermezzo.”

I’m suspecting the director was frightened as a child by a bad Blake Edwards movie. His shamelessness crept onto the stage during the scenes as well, as when he gave the Cook (Mary Jo Morris) business with a stuffy nose and, during the beginning of the second act, destroyed a scene of card-playing with the stupid business of a bent-over butler.

It’s probably too late to change any of that now, but at least could we lose the needless curtain call business? Then we’d have a Major achievement.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 6 August 1990

No comments: