Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Intermezzo review – Tobias Kratzer rehabilitates Strauss’ comedy with a pitch-perfect staging

28 April 2024


Deutsche Oper Berlin continues its Strauss trilogy with this wittily staged, gorgeously sung production of Intermezzo, which blows the cobwebs off Strauss’ opera with startling results.

Intermezzo

Intermezzo (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Where other opera houses fear to tread, Deutsche Oper Berlin, remains undaunted, boldly continuing to explore operas languishing on the fringes of the repertoire. Richard Strauss, of course, remains one of the most important exponents of the genre. And whilst stagings of Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier appear on the schedule of virtually every opera house in the world, many of his other works have a precarious foothold on the repertory. One of those is Intermezzo, a thinly disguised semi-autobiographical tale about the often tempestuous relationship between the composer and his wife, Pauline – here translated into the characters of conductor Robert Storch, and Christine. Maybe its flimsy plot, which in a nutshell hinges around a typo in letter, leading to questions about marital infidelity, deters most opera houses from staging this work. It was last seen in the UK nine years ago at Garsington, and it’s never appeared at either of London’s opera houses.

The flip side to this fundamentally inconsequential tale is that it contains some of Strauss’ most ravishing music, so on that basis alone is with the occasional exhumation. In a masterstroke, however, Deutsche Oper has achieved the impossible, and delivered a staging that is not only a theatrical knockout, but may well act as a catalyst for a total re-evaluation of this tricky piece. 

Director Tobias Kratzer takes some liberties with the libretto – we’re left in no doubt that while her husband is away, Christine dabbles in some extramarital hanky-panky with her admirer, Baron Lummer – but his determination to present the opera as something far more substantial than the original material warrants, scores on every conceivable level. Aided and abetted by Rainer Sellmaier’s sets and costumes, and above all Jonas Dahl and Janic Bebi’s video work, which is the best use of this medium in any operatic endeavour I’ve seen to date, Kratzer creates real three-dimensional characters, which is no mean feat.

Strauss’ episodic, 14 scenes which make up the opera blend seamlessly within this audacious contemporary backdrop. Given the plot revolves around telephone calls and letters, the updating to mobile phones and texts for once never seems cringeworthy – it all works perfectly. And the theatrical brilliance of it all is breathtaking – especially when Storch is seen returning from his travels on board a plane, during a particularly turbulent flight. During the many scene changes a live video relay of the orchestra is projected onto the front drop, and given Storch is a conductor, fits nicely into the overall concept. Kratzer also brings plenty of humour to the proceedings, peppered with in-jokes which reference Strauss’ other operas, but perhaps more significantly, he injects the work with a sense of humanity and warmth, giving the opera an additional dimension that is lacking in the source material.

“…Deutsche Oper Berlin remains undaunted…”

Intermezzo

Intermezzo (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Musically, as well as dramatically, the performance was without fault, with Donald Runnicles conducting an impassioned account of this lush score – the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin never sounding better. Given the conversational nature of the work, securing a perfect balance between pit and stage is difficult, yet Runnicles never let his expert players drown the singers, yet allowed them their head in the orchestral interludes, which were played with a sense of heady abandonment. 

The cast, too, was pitch perfect – with Maria Bengtsson’s astonishing portrayal of Christine at its centre. The role fits this hugely accomplished Swedish soprano like a glove, allowing her huge scope to display a wide range of acting abilities – at turns haughty, indignant, yet infused with plenty of self-deprecating humour. Her bright, silvery soprano filled Strauss’ soaring vocal lines with radiant tone – this was Strauss singing par excellence.

It’s a shame the remaining roles are underwritten by comparison, but Philipp Jekal made his mark as Storch, effortlessly well sung, revealing a rich, resonant baritone, catching the character’s arrogance to perfection. As his conducting nemesis, Stroh, Clemens Bieber’s bright, focussed tenor rang out forcefully – and it was a deft touch that he had more than a passing resemblance to Runnicles. Thomas Blondelle made his mark as Christine’s love interest, Baron Lummer, while it was nice to see veteran soprano Nadine Secunde back on stage as the dotty wife of the Notary. With a strong supporting cast assembled from the company’s in-house ensemble, this was a cast without a weak link. Special mention must be made of Christine’s son, Franzl, with the young Elliott Woodruff excelling in this speaking role.

Intermezzo is the second instalment of a Kratzer/Runnicles’ Strauss trilogy, following on from last year’s time travelling, trans-inclusive Arabella, with Die Frau ohne Schatten scheduled for January 2025. On the basis of these two stagings, it promises to be unmissable.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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Intermezzo review – Tobias Kratzer rehabilitates Strauss’ comedy with a pitch-perfect staging