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Archive for August, 2021

BTW

I am sorry I couldn’t find time to explain that the 52nd edition was the last installment of the Music Lounge. I’m away from my discs and books – and I’m afraid it outlived its original purpose. I also hope that the opera season won’t be interrupted during the winter months. If my hopes are not frustrated, we’ll have plenty to write about from now on.

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Intermezzo is an opera whose title says a lot about it. Not only was it created between two items conceived in collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and portraits a moment of Richard Strauss and Pauline de Ahna’s marriage when they were physically separated and almost divorced (due to a funny-in-hindsight misunderstanding), but also it is mostly about the illusory interval of peace and order in a world ruled by chaos and war. The opera’s main character, Christine (i.e, Pauline) has her world in strict control – and even her constant fighting with her husband Robert (i.e., Richard) is part of the plan. Fifteen years after the premiere of Intermezzo, the Strauss family would witness the metamorphosis of life as they knew and nothing would be the same, no matter how hard they tried to keep it the old way (and they tried harder and more obtusely than anyone else).

The references to Strauss’s own life make Intermezzo also hard to stage. For the premiere in Dresden, set designer it seems that Adolf Mahnke visited the composer ’s own house to find inspiration. In Rudolf Hartmann’s production for the Bayerische Staatsoper (available on YouTube), we can see how hard Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (as set designer) tried in vain to stylize the sceneries. That is why I find director Herbert Fritsch’s decision to stage Intermezzo in the manner of a pre-Vietnam US TV show highly effective. It fits the story, the Zeitgast and the low budget. As it is, there are two objects on stage – a pink baby grand piano and a gigantic ceiling lamp that change colors to create the atmosphere for every scene. There are no props and actors have to pretend that they are using a phone or ice-skating. The problem of having an empty stage like that is directors trying to fill the void with overactive Personenregie. Alas, that’s the case here – everybody acts as in sugar rush, there is a plethora of gags, slapstick, silly choreographies, nonsensical mannerisms that only make fantastical a story supposed to be close to real life. I see that the director is probably showing us that there is nothing realistic there – Christine has no perfect marriage for she knows Robert’s true love is his art, to start with – but Strauss himself made a point of saying that the feelings were real. And the director steered away from any attempt of true emotion.

The coldness of the proceedings proved to be particularly harmful in the context of the music performance. Conductor Clemens Heil obviously knows and loves this score – he kept it bubbly, sprightly, vital throughout and he truly helped his singers – but thats a tricky score that requires paramount standards. It’s like the pocket, “for dummies” version of Frau ohne Schatten (and the common musical motives are there to show us that). It requires an orchestra capable of clarity of articulation, tonal refulgence and virtuoso flexibility… albeit in demi-tintes in order to allow singers to project the text. And the Sinfonieorchester Basel is not that. As a result, the most “Romantic” passages could sound heavy, unclear and unsubtle.

Swiss soprano Flurina Stucki deserves praise for her Christine. First of all, for her musicianship. This is an impossibly difficult part, and some singers sound evidently approximative in wordy passages. Ms Stucki, on the other hand, made it all sound like music in her tightly focused soprano. Although her voice can acquire a piercing edge in exposed high notes, her experience with Mozart is evident in her “sound culture”: she produces a clean line, floats mezza voce in all registers and the basic tonal quality is pearly and appealing. She also shifts to spoken dialogue with absolute naturalness. Unlike Lotte Lehmann (the first Christine), she is a high soprano, and one misses a little bit warmth in the more intimate passages. Her Robert, Günter Papendell has a velvety baritone that makes one think rather of Hermann Prey in the Keilberth video than of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Sawallisch’s studio recording, what is fine. I prefer Prey to DFD in the role. However, the hint of wooliness in Mr.Papendell’s voice developed to lack of focus. By the end of the opera, it sounded basically grey. Michael Laurenz had the right touch of the operetta tenor in his voice, which is a requirement for the part of the Baron Lummer. Among the minor roles, Kali Hardwick sounded refreshingly free of mannerisms as Anna, Christine’s maid.

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