Mary Dunleavy as Christine with Ailish Tynan as her maid, Anna, and Alice Devine, Elka Lee-Green and Charlotte Sutherland as her staff
Mary Dunleavy as Christine with Ailish Tynan as Anna and Alice Devine, Elka Lee-Green & Charlotte Sutherland as her staff, in Intermezzo (Garsington Opera)
(© Mike Hoban)

Never one to distinguish between his public persona and his private life, Richard Strauss put an inordinate amount of autobiographical detail — plus a fair bit of dirty washing — into his tone poems Sinfonia Domestica and Ein Heldenleben and, to a greater or lesser degree, the operas Feuersnot, Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio. But it's Intermezzo that really gives a taste of what life was like behind closed family doors. It's the first reality opera: Keeping Up With the Strausses.

Garsington Opera stages a rare production of this glowing, musically sumptuous but narratively slender opera, and it's beautifully done. Strauss himself (lightly disguised as Robert Storch, so let's call him RS) constantly endures the mood swings of his hyper-sensitive and -critical wife Pauline (Christine in the opera); and the tiny incident that drives the three-hour evening, Frau S's overreaction to a wrongly-delivered note, comes within a whisker of ending their marriage.

It's an anecdote drawn from life, we're told, which makes Strauss's warts-and-all depiction of his wife's shortcomings seem rather cruel. In places Intermezzo feels like a therapy session to help the composer (who wrote his own libretto) let his bile. But that's his problem, not ours.

Cannily paired in Garsington's season with Così fan tutte, another opera where affairs of the heart are misdirected, Intermezzo is given an affectionate production by Bruno Ravella that does everything possible to humanise Christine. He probably goes a bit too far down the even-handed route, in fact, since the interpretation by Mary Dunleavy tends to project warmth and a fundamental rationality whereas both text and music portray her as overbearing and emotionally brittle.

'Drama in the smallest things'

The American soprano was the last of three singers to be announced as Christine, and it's largely third time lucky as she offers a polished, fully developed account of this mammoth role. Only her diction is a problem: she alone in the cast had me reaching for the surtitles, whereas the likes of Ailish Tynan as her peppy maid, Anna, articulate Andrew Porter's colloquial English translation to perfection.

Barnaby Rea and Oliver Johnston create stand-out characters within a generally first-rate company, while Mark Stone finds authority and a vein of complexity in the strangely under-defined role of RS. He almost makes the bothersome final scene, in which the wronged composer forgives his foolish wife and heals their marriage, palatable.

Intermezzo is Strauss at his most sensuous, and conductor Jac van Steen's baton weaves musical spun sugar. When Christine muses on the 'charming boy' (Sam Furness's Baron Lummer) with whom she has innocently dallied, he sends the spirit of the Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier wafting gloriously round her drawing room. The Garsington orchestral players wring every latent emotion from its pages and negotiate the music's sweep and swell with rhapsodic pleasure.

Set within fetching designs by Giles Cadle that are both sturdy and wittily inventive, and lit with customary eye-guiding discretion by Bruno Poet, Ravella's production makes it seem perfectly natural for ordinary people to have humdrum exchanges through singing. And humdrum conversation is all we really get in Intermezzo, which probably explains its neglect. But, as Strauss understood better than anyone, there's drama to be found in the smallest things. Buy into that and it'll sweep you away.

- Intermezzo plays in repertory at Garsington Opera at the Wormsley Estate, Stokenchurch, Bucks until 9 July