July 9, 2012
The Guardian by Tim Ashley
Strauss’s Intermezzo was considered an embarrassment in some quarters until recently. First performed in 1924, it’s a sardonic depiction of a period of strain in his own marriage, and even though the confessional element is often strong in the work of Romantic or post-Romantic artists, the autobiographical explicitness of Strauss’s portrait – particularly of his temperamental wife, Pauline, as the opera’s heroine Christine – led to charges of poor taste. More recently, though, many have come to acknowledge both its brilliance as music theatre and its insights into how emotional volatility can mask feelings of loneliness within relationships.
Strauss saw the piece’s dramaturgy in terms of “cinema scenes”, which in 1924, of course, meant in terms of the fluidity of silent film. Stephen Unwin’s Buxton festival production takes him more or less at his word. There’s a sparseness in Paul Wills’s designs that often leads to the impression of watching emotions in close-up, while titles projected on to a drop cloth during the interludes tell us where we are in terms of time and place. The first half feels disjointed, and Unwin could have done more with the ball scene in which Janis Kelly’s Christine falls prey to the unscrupulous Baron Lummer (Andrew Kennedy). After the interval, as tensions mount, things become utterly gripping.
Musically, it’s exceptional. In what may well prove a career-best performance, Kelly really gets to the heart of the vulnerability beneath Christine’s tantrums. Stephen Gadd, sporting a copy of Strauss’s moustache, is equally insightful as complacent husband Robert, while Kennedy is marvellously unctuous and vapid. The Northern Chamber Orchestra play with terrific dexterity and panache for conductor Stephen Barlow, though ideally they could do with a few more strings than the Buxton pit can accommodate.