Pace Tolstoy, happy marriages are not all alike, but they require a lot of work. I am not referring to the hectic happy marriage of Richard and Pauline Strauss, the model on which Strauss constructed Intermezzo, his portrait of the composer at home with the non-stop assault of his termagant wife accusing and blaming and admitting she’d find it dull to live with someone who didn’t fight back. I’m referring to the supremely happy marriage of artist and role (which, like any happy marriage, calls for luck and hard work) now on offer at the New York City Opera, where Mary Dunleavy has taken on the shrewish coloratura flights and turn-on-a-dime changes of mood that are Christine Storch.
Dunleavy’s honeyed voice resembles that of Renee Fleming before that grande dame became so affected and spoiled. I first heard Dunleavy’s sturdy lyric soprano as that roughest of dramatic coloratura workouts, Konstanze in Mozart’s Seraglio, and a woman who can handle Konstanze with credit can probably wrestle tigers. More recently she has been an admired Violetta (which I did not see). I wouldn’t have thought of Christine as a Dunleavy vehicle, perhaps because the part was created for the more opulent vocal charms of Lotte Lehmann, perhaps because the last time the City Opera presented it, the role was taken by Lauren Flanigan. Flanigan’s lyric skills were severely tested by the Strauss orchestra but her voice has a dangerous edge to it that made her an exciting Christine.
Dunleavy lacks that edge, but her girlish qualities are stronger than they seem (as was probably also true of Pauline Strauss, for whom her husband wrote so many of his loveliest songs), and she has no problem riding the full blast of a lush orchestra. At moments of stress, a metallic sheen (very Strauss, very Jugendstil, like the gold slathered on a Klimt portrait) gleams through the instrumental texture, which argues not merely ability but craft: Dunleavy knows just how to slice through a heavy orchestra without putting herself under undue strain. Nor did it hurt that, with her marcelled hair and suave twenties costumes, her pert, imperious manner recalled the slangy heroines played by Myrna Loy and Jean Arthur. Add to this a balletic figure and a charm that almost persuades you Christine would be endurable, and you have the finest achievement of a singing actress on New York’s opera stages this fall.
Intermezzo is one of Strauss’s conversational operas—the Prologue to Ariadne and Die Schweigsame Frau are similar—in that, though the score is full of melody, the voice seldom flows into easy, relaxing song. This is a major reason for the opera’s rarity in non-German-speaking lands, but with Dunleavy’s lyricism joining the fragments of sprechstimme and endearment and tirade, I felt as I do with a good Handel or Verdi recitativo accompagnato, that this was more interesting, more full of character, than song would be. Strauss uses the same richly symphonic language for the mythic and grandiose (in operas like Die Frau ohne Schatten and the “operatic” portions of Ariadne auf Naxos) as he does for the day-to-day domesticity of the “Sinfonia Domestica” and Intermezzo. Perhaps he saw no difference between the mythic and day-to-day family discord. Today, with a flood of new operas loosed upon the world dealing with messy everyday lives, neglecting antique myth or historical pageant, perhaps Intermezzo will prove to have been a harbinger of a change in operatic style, just as Strauss’s Elektra was a harbinger of new musical looks at classical Greece.
The other triumph, musically speaking, was the lush Strauss score as led by George Manahan, which swept the evening’s welter of events along like the ice skater’s waltz mimed (on in-line skates) in one of Intermezzo’s many locales without drowning the singers. Vocally, the entire cast seemed well chosen and on their toes, as Pauline Strauss (a terror to her housemaids) would no doubt have imperiously insisted. Nicholas Pallesen sang the not quite credible saintly Robert Storch—Strauss’s self-portrait—with suave dignity, though some stretching for high notes implied that he might not have handled a full-sized leading role so easily. Andrew Bidlack as the young parasitical baron that snobby Christine unwarily picks up showed a fine, easy lyric tenor one hopes to hear more of. Jessica Klein was a pleasure as the most put-upon of the maids. A debutante named Tharanga Goonetilleke gave the three lines of the Baron’s girlfriend a deep, sexy contralto throb that made everyone’s ears open wider.
The handsome, stage-smart production was by Leon Major. Andrew Jackness’s sets and Martha Mann’s costumes looked handsome and in period (which is early, respectable Weimar) without evidently straining the budget.