Notes and Editorial Reviews
John Pritchard, cond; Elisabeth Söderström (
); Marco Bakker (
); Elizabeth Gale (
); Alexander Oliver (
); Glyndebourne Fest O
CHANDOS 3174 (2 CDs: 150:27
Text and Translation) Live: Glyndebourne 7/13/1974
Although an avid Straussian, I am not among those who wax ecstatic over
. It is exceptionally talky (or conversational, if you prefer to put it nicely), and aside from two or at most three passages, there is nothing memorable in it for the singers. There is far more of interest in the orchestra. Strauss even called the work “a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes,” and arranged several of those interludes into a suite. But many of the remaining interludes amount to little more than mere note-spinning. No,
is far from being a great opera. But what a libretto! I’ve long believed that as a straight play, perhaps with incidental music and/or passages of melodrama, it would have been a Broadway or Off-Broadway hit.
Each of Strauss’s previous seven operas had been based on some kind of romantic legend, Greek myth, biblical event, or fairy tale. In
, he tackled something totally different, something contemporary and realistic. In fact, Strauss based
on an actual event in his own life: In 1903, a touring Italian opera company was in residence at the Kroll Theater in Berlin. One night, the company’s conductor, Josef Stransky, was having a drink in the Bristol Hotel with the leading tenor, Emilio de Marchi. A rather forward young woman in the bar took the liberty of joining them, and, upon learning where the gentlemen worked, requested from de Marchi a complimentary ticket for an upcoming performance. De Marchi told her to apply to “Kapellmeister Strausky” (meaning Stransky). In order to track down “Strausky” the next day, the woman turned to the telephone directory. There was no “Strausky” so she took the closest thing to it: Hofkapellmeister Strauss, to whom she sent the following note: Dear Sweetheart, please do bring me the ticket. Will meet you in the bar afterward. Your faithful Mitzi.”
Strauss was out of town at the time, so his wife—the infamously haughty, volatile, and difficult Pauline—opened the letter and jumped to obvious conclusions. One can only imagine the tantrum she must have thrown. She even initiated divorce proceedings. When poor, unsuspecting Strauss arrived home he “went through such a scene as he had never even witnessed on the stage,” as Ernst Decsey put it in his magazine article about the incident some years later. “It was only after long investigations that strand by strand the rope of the affair was disentangled and his innocence re-established.”
For a libretto, Strauss initially approached a Viennese critic and dramatist named Hermann Bahr (recommended by Hofmannsthal), but Bahr soon recognized that only Strauss himself could write the text for so personal a subject. And so he did. The result is remarkably candid, the characters vividly drawn, the storyline entirely credible.
If ever an opera needed to be seen rather than merely heard, it is
. And if it can’t be seen, the singers need to invest their roles with plenty of imagination and a sense of immediacy. This was expertly achieved in what I believe was the first recording of
, a live performance from the Theater an der Wien in 1963 (still available, now on CD). One could easily visualize a capricious, fussy, prissy Christine (Hanny Steffek) as she natters away in mile-a-minute German to and at her servants, her husband (Hermann Prey), and her new young friend Baron Lummer (Ferry Gruber). The teasing, the innuendo, the playfulness—and the temper—are all there.
Unfortunately, the magic is missing from the recording at hand, a live 1974 Glyndebourne performance that may well have looked good (one hears plenty of chuckling from the audience), but in audio only it largely fails to deliver. Elisabeth Söderström’s Christine (sung in Andrew Porter’s masterly English translation) is shrill, almost screechy at times. To make matters worse, she, along with the rest of the cast, is poorly miked. One is constantly straining to hear the voices properly. (Fortunately, an English text is provided.) Marco Bakker is a credible Storch (Strauss), though his sumptuous baritone seems almost out of character for such a businesslike fellow as the real Strauss. Elizabeth Gale serves well as their lively maid, Anna, and Alexander Oliver has the right touch of youthful enthusiasm.
Berlioz compared the orchestral writing in his opera
Béatrice et Bénédict
to “a caprice written with the point of a needle.” So too might Strauss have described much of
. However, the London Philharmonic leaves a lot of loose threads lying about. There are intonation problems in the winds (the waltz music in act I is awful) and the playing overall is surprisingly sloppy for Londoners, with the strings in particular often sounding ragged. Truth be told, the score contains some of the most fiendishly difficult writing Strauss ever conceived, and I’m not overlooking what he demanded in
Die Frau ohne Schatten
. But still, the London Philharmonic is capable of doing better than this. One need only compare how it plays for Gustav Kuhn in the same opera at another live Glyndebourne performance, this one from 1984, also in English and available on DVD. It features Felicity Lott in one of her greatest roles, one she obviously loved and milked for all it is worth. I would go so far as to rank it with Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin (and there are many points of comparison between the two roles). If you’re not convinced that to make its effect
needs to be seen rather than merely heard, that is required viewing.
FANFARE: Robert Markow
Works on This Recording
Intermezzo, Op. 72 by Richard Strauss
Elisabeth Söderström (Soprano),
Thomas Lawlor (Baritone),
Alexander Oliver (Tenor),
Elisabeth Gale (Soprano),
Richard Allfrey (Voice),
Marco Bakker (Bass)
London Philharmonic Orchestra,
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Written: 1918-1923; Germany
Date of Recording: 1974
Venue: Glyndebourne Festival
Featured Sound Samples
Intermezzo: Act I: Scene 1: "Anna, Anna! Where can the silly creature be?"
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