First Nighter: Richard Strauss's Mezz-a-Mezz Intermezzo

The family that flays together stays together. That's the message Richard Strauss wanted to get across when, as a gift for his contentious wife, he wrote the music and libretto to Intermezzo -- now in the New York City Opera's fall season. There's no doubt the composer believed in the layman's popular psychological theory that the more a husband and wife argue, the more they flagellate one another verbally, the stronger their union becomes.

Not everyone will agree with him, but if that's the way he wanted to have it, he's entitled. The problem is, however, that when in 1923 he constructed the mostly sung, sometimes spoken autobiographical piece, in which he put his contentious wife Pauline on stage as Christine and himself up there with her as composer Robert Storch, he created a challenge for himself and others not so easily met.

As what Strauss liked to call "a bourgeois comedy" unfolds, Christine (Mary Dunleavy) is attacking Robert (Nicholas Pallesen) to some extent on the notion that if he says "Black," it's up to her to say "White." She's bridling at his leaving for a tour and after he does, she heads to a winter resort -- for which clever designer Andrew Jackness provides a mountain slope for tobogganers -- where she dallies with the young Baron Lummer (Andrew Bidlack).

Hardly holding herself accountable for the marital transgression, she climbs on her high horse when she receives a note claiming hubby Robert has been twiddling his thumbs with a woman called Mitzi Mayer. Even when Robert proves to haughty Christine that Mayer's partner in hanky-panky was Kapellmeister Stroh (Erik Nelson Werner), the determined lady still finds reasons to berate the wronged spouse. Only after some more of that unpleasantness do the two love birds declare they've never been more devoted to each other.

Necessary for anyone taking on Christine is the ability to infuse her with comic grandiosity -- as well as a soupcon of self-deprecation -- so that she doesn't strike audiences as nothing more than an unsympathetic harridan. In the role, Dunleavy sings the Strauss music with bright, rounded tones and hits the high notes as if cresting the mountain peaks the character visits. At no point, however, does she find a way into the comic part of the "bourgeois comedy."

Therefore, a significant element in the revival of Leon Major's 1999 production is missing. But that's not the only obstacle Strauss has placed along the ski trail to Intermezzo success. He's really only telling an anecdote, but he's extended it to two acts. Well, why not? The fellow had so much music in him needing to come out, a good deal of it for the cold-climate segment.

So he supplied the piece with an abundance of lushly brittle orchestral stretches -- all of it conducted here with the required brittle lushness by George Manahan. Although so much of it is too entrancing to be termed extraneous, it does mean a director has to deal with the abundant non-libretto passages. The tobogganing and ice-skating in the resort scenes (in-line skates used through these skaters' waltzes) are sleighfuls of fun, but at other times Major has the supernumeraries battling with umbrellas in a storm or the uniformed Christine-Robert retainers romping around like extras in a two-reeler. Often, the occasionally silhouetted activity is too twee for words.

Dunleavy isn't the only one earning high musical marks for singing. Pallesen makes certain his baritone resounds throughout Robert's dodging his wife's assaults, but he doesn't do much in the acting department to guarantee close attention. Neither does Bidlack, who remains regimentally rigid as the romantically adventurous Baron. His tenor is attractive, but there has to be a spectrum of womanizing idiosyncrasies he could be working that he isn't. The photo accompanying his bio exudes more personality that he brings to the footlights.

There is one extremely well-acted scene that contributes to the happy atmosphere. It's the card game -- Skat -- during which Robert receives that damning letter. When he does, he abruptly terminates the betting-session but not before his friends (sung and spoken by David Kravitz, William Ledbetter, Matthew Burns and Jan Opalach) amusingly demonstrate that men gossip about women as much as vice versa.

Strauss wrote the opera as one-third of a domestic trilogy -- the others being Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Die Aegyptische Helena. In this revival, the effectiveness of Intermezzo is only intermittent.