Intermezzo/Double Bill Review 2012
July 29, 2012
The Telegraph by Hugo Shirley
‘Intermezzo’ and a double bill of ‘The Maiden in the Tower’ and ‘Kashchei the Immortal’ prove Buxton Festival’s ability to punch above its weight with long-forgotten operatic curios, writes Hugo Shirley.
Intermezzo * * * *
Under its new artistic director, Stephen Barlow, the Buxton Festival’s reputation for dusting off long-forgotten operatic curios and punching well above its weight looks set to be maintained. Certainly, two of this year’s three home-grown productions (sung in English) fit the brief: a double bill of Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov rarities and a production of Richard Strauss’s oft-maligned 1924 conversation piece Intermezzo.
Barlow himself conducts the Strauss, which recounts – in uncomfortably candid and thinly-veiled form – an episode from the composer’s married life when a misaddressed letter led to his famously shrewish wife accusing him of adultery. It’s a treacherous, uncompromisingly difficult score and the ending is unfashionably happy – operas ultimately celebrating solid, bourgeois fidelity are few.
Strauss’s hefty means are at constant risk of outweighing the ostensibly slight ends, and the second act is less lean than the first. But the composer’s own fast-moving libretto is paced more cinematically than operatically and, like the music, is touching and witty, especially so in Stephen Unwin’s snappy production, economically designed by Paul Wills and evocatively lit by John Bishop. Janis Kelly is outstanding as Christine, the wife, managing both the notes and the tricky characterization extremely well, while Stephen Gadd is just right as her husband, the browbeaten but easygoing composer Robert Storch. Andrew Kennedy is excellent as the nice-but-dim Baron Lummer, heading a fine supporting cast. There was a fair bit of ragged playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, but Barlow paced the score beautifully.
Double Bill (The Maiden in the Tower/ Kashchei the Immortal) * * *
Pairing Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchei the Immortal makes sense on paper, but director Stephen Lawless’s decision to graft them together was not entirely successful. The Sibelius is an early occasional work – roughly the length of one of his symphonies, and often sounding like them – and was effectively staged as a disturbing, post-Freudian nursery game, with the score’s driving rhythms and lyrical outbursts creating a powerful effect within its modest scope.
But by setting Kashchei “many years later”, with the characters and cast from one opera having morphed into those of the next, Lawless muddled Rimsky-Korsakov’s complicated fairy-tale plot unnecessarily, despite plenty of imaginative touches. Kaschei also calls out for more orchestral magic than Stuart Stratford managed to conjure from his players. Nevertheless, Kate Ladner was an affecting maiden in both works, Richard Berkeley-Steele reliable first as her lover then as Kashchei, and Owen Gilhooly impressive, respectively, as her captor and boyfriend.