Gadd, Stephen


IntermezzoRichard Strauss - Intermezzo

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Janis Kelly, Stephen Gadd, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala, Robert Poulton, Richard Roberts, Colin Brockie, Susanne Holmes, Martha McLorinan | Buxton Opera House - 13 July 2012

Intermezzo is, of course, an opera notoriously based on the real-life domestic circumstances of its composer Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Anha, a turbulent but happy marriage between two quite different personalities. The reason we know so much about the nature of their marriage is that Strauss depicted it in frank and some would say vulgar detail in his symphonies and in aspects of his operas. There’s no disguising the fact however that Intermezzo is unprecedented for the level of detail in which the composer’s domestic affairs, specifically two notable incidents, are exposed to the full view of the public. Whether the opera is vulgar or not is open to question and undoubtedly interpretation, but if there’s a case to be made for it, it was made here with the wonderful production at the 2012 Buxton Festival.

Coming after such important works as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Intermezzo can’t help but appear to be a minor work with a rather trivial subject unworthy of a composer of Strauss’s stature. A light comedy, a farce, a domestic drama of minor disputes and marriage difficulties, played out in short chapters like edited scenes from a movie (cinema an influence to some extent on the work, and reflected in the staging here), played out in music that accompanies and supports conversational arrangements rather than imposes its own expressive presence, Intermezzo hardly seems like a subject that would appeal to the lofty ambitions of Strauss’s regular librettist at this time Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Yet, in taking this unexpected direction with a new librettist, Strauss himself shows himself to be just as ambitious and willing to experiment with a subject and a style that is far from what is traditionally expected of an opera work.

Adapting to this new form, Strauss’s glorious compositions prove to be surprisingly musical and dramatic. It’s a typically detailed score from this composer, attuned to the smallest emotional gestures as well as to the broader ones called for by the farcical situations that ensue when Christine, the temperamental wife of a famous composer, Robert Storch (not much disguising of identities going on there), reads a love letter sent mistakenly to her husband and promptly, to the complete bewilderment and distress of Storch, sues for divorce. Working in another incident drawn from real-life where the lonely Christine - her husband frequently away working and conducting - is deceived about the nature of a friendship she strikes up with a young man who claims he is a baron, but is really looking for someone to pay his bills for him, Strauss balances our sympathies in his depiction of the complex and difficult personality of Christine with flashes of humour and compassion.

Despite the apparent triviality of the subject and autobiographical content that seems a little self-aggrandising - particularly in the manner in which it is richly scored here by Strauss - Intermezzo is by no means vulgar entertainment. It’s thanks to this work that we have real insight into the Strauss household, the personality, temperaments and the passions that fuel the composer’s work, but it’s not entirely self-regarding and self-important. These are fully-fleshed out characters, their personalities, whims, mannerisms and deeper natures expressed with tremendous skill by Strauss. The extraordinarily detailed score may be aligned with a very different kind of dramatic content to the classical subjects of earlier works - to humour, to flashes of wit, jealousy, rage, love and passion rather than the death lust of Salome or the revenge fantasies of Elektra, but really, the scoring is no less precisely nuanced. These are much more human emotions, glorified (perhaps more a little over-glorified) by Strauss’s perceptive, impressionistic swells and rhythms, but it’s honest, it’s witty, it’s human and it’s real.

It’s surprising then that Intermezzo is not more frequently performed on the stage, as it is undoubted much more of a theatrical work than is it musical. The fact that this theatrical conversational drama can come across with such musicality and works so well on the stage however depends entirely on the nature of the production, and in just about every respect, this Buxton Festival production was simply outstanding - fully aware of the potential of the piece and capable of putting it across. The stage design, the costumes and the direction were an absolute joy. Every single scene struck the exact right note, with simple sets that were nonetheless pinpointed with delightful period detail. There was also remarkable precision in the setting of tone and circumstance through the use of lighting, the drama able to slip between a drawing room and a brief encounter on a ski slope with barely a pause for the cinematic intertitles to indicate the scene change. Everything about Stephen Unwin’s direction was perfectly in line with Strauss’s score and the dramatic tone and intent of the work.

Even so, Intermezzo is a work that would still be rather difficult to pull off effectively were it not able to make the characters seem human and sympathetic. In this respect Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Christine, a tremendously challenging role that despite the surface impression given is actually much warmer and human than just about any other character to be found in Strauss’s work. Utterly mesmerising, her attention to detail was evident not just in the terrific singing, but in her bearing and in the manner and timing of her delivery, which was that of a consummate actress. This was a delightful performance that drew all the potential out of the role, as well as giving something personal to it as well. Stephen Gadd was also exceptionally good as Robert Storch, similarly finding warmth and humour in the personality of the composer, singing the role well and in perfect accord with the performance of Janis Kelly. The two roles are the obviously the most vital, supported well by the reminder of the cast, all of them achieving a wonderful rapport with the fluid performance of the orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow. Intermezzo was undoubtedly, the most accomplished achievement of this year’s Buxton Festival.

OlimpiadeAntonio Vivaldi - L’Olimpiade

La Serenissima, 2012 | Adrian Chandler & James Johnstone, Richard Williams, Stephen Gadd, Rachael Lloyd, Sally Bruce-Payne, Louise Poole, Marie Elliott, Mhairi Lawson, Jonathan Gunthorpe | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

You might think that the Olympic games would be a perfect subject for a Vivaldi sprint, but the composer’s approach to this frequently covered libretto by Metastasio actually adopts a pace more akin to a marathon - which I suppose is an appropriate description for a lengthy opera seria. Thankfully, the directors for this Buxton Opera Festival production were better able to resist the predictable sporting cliches than myself with L’Olimpiade, all the more impressive since everyone else is tying cultural events with considerably less relevance into the London 2012 celebrations.

L’Olimpiade features the usual Metastasian setting of star-crossed lovers, unable to be with the one they love - usually on the dictate of a cruel and selfish king - their lives made even more unbearable by twists of chance, circumstance and no small amount of coincidence in work that has a convoluted backstory you need to be aware of before the opera even starts. Eventually however the king is persuaded to come to his senses and in his wisdom put everything back into the natural order, joining or reuniting the distressed lovers into the arms of their loved ones. It’s the setting of the Olympic games however that puts an interesting if somewhat notional spin on proceedings in L’Olimpiade, one of the most covered Metastasio librettos.

In the Buxton production, the set is staged as if for a wedding, but it looks like a gloomy affair that no amount of coloured balloons is going to enliven. The reluctant bride-to-be is Aristea, and the reason for her despair (despair is not too strong a word to describe the fevered outpourings expressed in typically overwrought da capo arias) is that her father, Clistene, the King of Sicione, has promised her to the winner of the Olympic games. She however is in love with the super athlete Megacle, but her father has a dislike for Atheneans, and has banished him from the kingdom. In the substantial backstory prior to the opera, Megacle has however been rescued during his exile from bandits by Licida, the son of the King of Crete. Owing his life to his new friend, Megacle agrees to enter the Olympic games under Licida’s name, unaware that the prize he is competing for on behalf of his friend is his lost love.

That’s just the simple outline, but being a Pietro Metastasio libretto, there are evidently other complications, not least of which is Argene’s despair (yes, yet more despair) that the man she loves, Licida, has abandoned her (again by regal decree, since she is not of noble birth) and now has his desires set on marrying Aristea. There’s also a situation in the past where Clistene had ordered the death of his own son - Aristea’s twin brother - after a fortune-teller warned that his son would one day attempt to kill him, but, as you can imagine, the only reason for introducing this element is to ensure a nice twist at the end when the son is revealed to be alive and actually turns out to be… well, you get the picture. Nothing remotely naturalistic, just a wonderful opera seria situation for opportunities to decry one’s woes at the cruel whims of fate in long elaborate repetitive arias

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Vivaldi’s approach to this once very popular libretto is not the typical energetic Vivaldian style, although those familiar fast-paced rhythms evidently have their place here, but the work - one of the composer’s later works from 1734 in the then fashionable Neapolitan style - is rather more varied in its efforts to suit the finer sentiments and the sorrow expressed throughout. The majority of those sentiments are delivered in solo arias or ariosos, with only a little chorus work, the variety being in the tempos and the fine melodies Vivaldi creates for them. There is one beautiful duet that stands out from this however, Act I’s ‘Ne’ giorni tuoi felice‘, between Megacle and Aristea, sung wonderfully here by Louise Poole in the castrato role of Megacle, and Rachel Lloyd as Aristea.

L’Olimpiade is a work that relies on the quality of the singers to give its improbable story some character and the singers here helped make that possible, Sally Bruce-Payne’s Argene and Stephen Gadd’s Clistene in particular standing out, but really, this was a concerted effort with the right range of voices to fit the roles. Richard Williams’ stage dressing was basic, but the choice of setting, notionally present-day, was perfect, the whole event looking like one of those wedding parties where everything kicks-off as old grievances are brought to light. Rare though they are, Vivaldi operas are notoriously difficult to stage and this set the tone perfectly and in a much more appropriate location than some sports stadium. With La Serenissima’s Adrian Chandler on violin and James Johnstone on harpsichord driving those Vivaldi rhythms on period instruments, the whole thing came together wonderfully, showing that there’s life in these old works yet.