Buxton, a small spa town in Derbyshire, has been home to one of the most imaginative and important festivals in Britain for over thirty years. In the intimate setting of the modestly sized opera house, the festival presents a staggering programme of literature, plays, opera and recitals every summer, remaining one of the principal hotspots in the country to hear both the familiar and the forgotten.

Janis Kelly and Andrew Kennedy © Robert Workman
Janis Kelly and Andrew Kennedy
© Robert Workman

Of Strauss’ fifteen operas, maybe six or seven at the most are presented regularly at the major opera houses. Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and to some extent Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella and Daphne, are all familiar masterpieces, whilst Intermezzo and most of the others remain items of curiosity for the Strauss enthusiast.

Intermezzo, composed between 1917 and 1923, received its première at the smaller Dresden theatres in 1924 and, one of only two Strauss operas with the libretto by the composer (the other is Guntram), it is described as a ‘bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes in two acts’. The plot is autobiographical and concerns an alarming episode in Strauss’ home life: whilst away on the Isle of Wight, Strauss’ wife Pauline received a letter addressed to her husband and, dealing with all correspondence in his absence, was horrified to discover within it intimate remarks from a woman whom she immediately deduced to be having an affair with her husband. To Pauline’s mind the marriage was over; she set about putting the wheels of divorce in motion whilst also withdrawing 2,000 marks from the bank. Strauss, horrified but amused, responded in humour, reporting that he had never heard of the woman or the Union Bar in which he was supposed to have been meeting her. Ultimately it was confirmed that mistaken identity was to blame and Strauss was innocent – nonetheless the events provided a harrowing experience for the pair, as well as an amusing opera.

The musical score is charming and the libretto delightful – only the final scene (which amusingly calls to mind the bickering Bliss family in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, also from 1924) might be branded too long. Principally the work, like Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, is a conversation piece, free from the extended arias, duets, trios and so on that one finds in Der Rosenkavalier, and yet the music flows along so entrancingly that two and a half hours seem like two and a half minutes. The scenes are short and each is interspersed with a short orchestral interlude that sets the tone for the next scene. The waltz music for the ballroom is especially effective.

Director Stephen Unwin approached the work with an almost minimalist feel: the set was uncluttered and consisted of nothing more or less than was required to represent adequately what was needed for the scene – no superfluous props or scenery were employed.

Robert Storch (Strauss) was sung by Stephen Gadd. Looking a little like the real Strauss, Gadd sang with conviction and suited the role well: his ability to portray affection, rage, desperation, fury, humility and humour was wonderfully displayed by his clear-toned baritone. Similarly, as Storch’s paranoid and intense wife Christine (Pauline), Janis Kelly was exemplary. Easily the ‘main character’ of the opera, she is on stage in ten of the thirteen scenes and Kelly exhibits her skill in playing what most husbands would consider an undoubtedly insufferable woman. Excellent diction and lyrical singing that would not be out of place in Der Rosenkavalier or Daphne made for highly entertaining listening.

The Storchs’ maid Anna (also true to life, as the Strausses’ maid was named Anna too), played by Susanne Holmes, provided light humour and rationality in her ‘back-chat’, and yet a sympathetic attitude towards her mistress as well.

A side plot includes the young Baron Lummer, a companion to Christine in her husband’s absence, taken by tenor Andrew Kennedy. Kennedy acted well and embodied all the miserable qualities of Lummer, who is attempting to cheat money of out Christine, but the voice seems a little overbearing and makes for hard listening in a character that does not need overemphasis.

A Buxton Festival regular, Jonathan Best (who sang excellently in the title role of Handel’s Saul last summer) held only the small part of the Notary in this production, but still shone as a bass of brilliance that I would pay willingly to hear with increased frequency.

The Northern Chamber Orchestra, directed by Stephen Barlow, tackled Strauss’ score with aplomb, despite there being some sticky moments of discord that would have been more at home in Salome or Elektra. Nonetheless, the score is a difficult one, and in such an unforgiving acoustic their performance was splendid.

***11