What is true love? The standard operatic version is of blazing passion, but there is another kind: the love of two people growing old together, caring for each other, with total knowledge of each other, warts and all. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare puts it as well as anyone:

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Mary Dunleavy as Christine, Ailish Tynan as Anna © Mike Hoban
Mary Dunleavy as Christine, Ailish Tynan as Anna
© Mike Hoban
But those lines are from a sonnet: not even Shakespeare dared attempt to represent such mature marital love on the stage. Richard Strauss, however, did precisely that, risking the wrath of his famously prickly wife Pauline, in Intermezzo, which paints a real marital quarrel (and its resolution) between himself and Pauline, disingenuously renamed Robert and Christine.

Every aspect of Bruno Ravella’s period (i.e. 1920s) production for Garsington Opera is pin-sharp in its attention to detail. Giles Cadle’s sets are a masterpiece of creating different environments with a minimum number of moving parts: simple devices transform the Strauss home into a ski and toboggan slope (including a ski lift and a real crash between Christine and the young Baron), followed by the Grundlsee mountain inn, the Baron’s lodging and Robert’s club in Vienna. Every prop is precise, the maids move as if they were trained in a posh school for domestic servants. Stagecraft is superb throughout.

Collision: Mary Dunleavy as Christine, Sam Furness as Baron Lummer © Mike Hoban
Collision: Mary Dunleavy as Christine, Sam Furness as Baron Lummer
© Mike Hoban
Tthe principals deliver acting performances of the very finest. The role of Christine is punishing (she is on stage for virtually the whole of Act I) and Mary Dunleavy plays it to perfection, displaying both the obsessive-compulsive house-proudness (for which Pauline Strauss was notorious) and the desperate boredom and searching for companionship of a housewife abandoned at home for long periods by a husband who is always travelling at work. As Christine’s maid Anna, Ailish Tynan doesn’t get nearly as many lines, but she more than matched her for characterisation, with a never-ending series of facial expressions: you are never in any doubt as to what is being left unsaid. Mark Stone proved a delightfully smooth and urbane Robert, whose self-satisfaction turns to real despair as his wife threatens divorce by telegram. The little acting touches are innumerable, from the couple’s young son playing with a toy car when he should be practising piano to the landlady of the Baron’s lodging hastily kicking a chamber pot out of the way to Christine running a finger along the furniture to check for dust.

Mark Stone (Robert) and Mary Dunleavy (Christine) © Mike Hoban
Mark Stone (Robert) and Mary Dunleavy (Christine)
© Mike Hoban
The material of Intermezzo was so personal and sensitive that Strauss’s usual librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl refused to touch it, with the result that Strauss wrote the libretto himself. Strauss was not a poet, and the result is a densely interleaved mixture of rapid fire prose, Sprechstimme and genuinely lyrical singing. For around the first two thirds of the opera, the lyrical material happens only in short snatches, and the acting performances are so strong that one is immersed in the singers' characters rather than their vocal qualities. In the final reconciliation scene, however, Stone showed himself to have a smooth and full baritone of real quality, and Dunleavy moved away from the harsh staccato nature of most of her preceding material and displayed a pleasant soprano to match him.

One of the glories of Intermezzo is its orchestral interludes, and it was here that Garsington’s orchestra shone at their brightest, under the baton of Jac van Steen. The most compelling was the interlude preceding Robert’s homecoming when the quarrel has been resolved (at least, mainly so), which was played with a particularly Straussian combination of vigour and lyricism.

Intermezzo isn’t a perfect work by any means. For much of the opera, the portrait of Pauline verges dangerously close to caricature, while that of Robert is distinctly self-serving. Although there is a lot of orchestral colour, the orchestration is always somewhat thick so that it’s difficult for individual instruments to shine. But the score is remarkable for being closely knit with the dialogue, continually changing in response to the mood and speech pattern of every sentence: van Steen, Ravella and their cast followed this closeness utterly faithfully.

And the final quarrel, when everything is supposedly settled, was an utterly accurate portrayal of how the two people in a marital row can steadily dig themselves into a hole, regardless of any logic or sense, out of which they cannot escape – until the row dissipates itself for no more reason than how it started. By the end of the opera, it totally won me over as a true-to-life portrait of enduring love, with all its trials, tribulations, comfort and joy.