A bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes in two acts.
Libretto by the composer.
First performed in the Court Theatre in Dresden on 4 November 1924.
It is early one morning in the home of the conductor and court composer Robert Storch in Grundlsee. Robert is preparing to leave for a two-month conducting job in Vienna and he and his wife Christine are packing. Their relationship is very volatile – Christine criticises the household servants, Robert’s job, his constant presence at home instead of going out to work like other husbands, his absent-mindedness; she complains at all the work she has to do – answering the telephone, deciding on menus, organising the gardener, paying bills, ordering groceries … . Robert gently responds that the true work of an artist is pure pleasure, but Christine snaps that work is never a pleasure and that death would be preferable. This outburst reminds her that Robert’s origins are humble and that his family must never be compared with her distinguished relatives. Robert suggests that she return to bed and let him get on with his packing, but this reminds her that he is about to leave and she starts checking that he has got everything, because, after all, the servants are notoriously unreliable. This argument is clearly the norm and as Robert goes to get his breakfast, Anna, the loyal housemaid, deflects the insults with a deftness which has come from long experience, and suggests that once he has left, Christine might like to go tobogganing with a friend. This provokes another torrent of abuse. Robert returns, and Christine’s onslaught resumes – he is a mere musician, he forces her to live in the public gaze, and if he really is going to leave her for two months the least he can do is to have a reasonable conversation with her.
A sleigh arrives to take Robert to the station and when he suggests that she might kiss him before he leaves, Christine announces that she finds him disgusting. Robert muses that anything might happen to him – a heart attack, an accident, murder, a train crash – and Christine suddenly becomes solicitous, telling him to sit in the middle carriages, to not stay up late, to keep his mouth closed in public for fear of catching something, to keep his fur collar up when he is out … . Robert says that he will write regularly, but Christine says that she will have no time for writing. Robert’s temper breaks – he calls her a scratchy old scrubbing-brush and leaves.
Christine immediately starts fussing about her hair, about their son’s clothes, some buttons, and, as usual, Anna gets the brunt of her outburst. She looks out of the window to see him depart, and when Robert waves, Christine hides behind the curtains, commenting that he wanders around so much that he must be a bit Jewish. She continues in the same vein – she is merely the great composer’s wife, she isn’t even mentioned in his biography … but she is interrupted by their son Franzl, known as Bubi, who asks if he has to wear his hobnailed boots to go out in the snow; then a maid comes in to say that a man has arrived with some tax forms. This is all clear proof that Christine really does have to do everything unaided while her husband just plays cards with his friends, which reminds her to phone a supplier in order to demand some rosehip jam which is Robert’s favourite when he is working. The cook pops in to ask what she should make for dinner, but all she gets is a telling-off for annoying Christine. Anna sagely observes that maybe Christine should accompany her distinguished husband when he goes away, which provokes another tirade about the tiresomeness of having to be completely responsible for all household management. Anna reminds her that Robert is kind and thoughtful, but Christine disagrees – he is unbearably supercilious and condescending and clearly thinks that all women are idle, half-witted morons. Anna does her best to counter this barrage but eventually Christine is interrupted by the telephone; it is a friend who invites her to go tobogganing. Christine accepts and gushes revoltingly – there is a true friend who knows how tiresome it is for Christine to have to take the initiative and make phone calls like that: she starts to witter on about what she should wear.
First orchestral interlude
At the toboggan-run, sledges and people having fun are sliding all over the place. Christine, already on the run and unable to stop, shouts a warning too late to prevent her from colliding with a young man with a pair of skis. She blames him, but when she discovers that his name is Baron Lummer, she rises to the challenge of having a young friend with a title, and she tells him that her parents used to know his parents (which may or may not be true) and as they talk, she discovers that he is there on a rest-cure holiday for a few weeks and after introducing herself (as the wife of the famous court composer Robert Storch), she asks Lummer to visit her. He readily agrees.
Second orchestral interlude
At a dance at the local lakeside restaurant, Christine and Lummer have clearly got to know one another. They dance, and Christine says that she has not danced so energetically for ages, and worries that the young man is overdoing it a bit. Lummer tells her that he will start his recuperation programme the next day, and Christine appoints herself as his personal trainer. Lummer asks her for another waltz and she jumps at the chance.
Third orchestral interlude
In the home of the Storch family lawyer (unnamed and referred to only as ‘the Notary’), Christine is arranging for a room to be made available, at her expense, for Lummer. She tells the lawyer’s wife that Robert is always encouraging her to find an ideal companion, and she fusses about the arrangement of the furniture in the room – Lummer seemingly suffers from migraines, so his bed must be close to an open window. The lawyer’s wife, slightly embarrassed, agrees to all Christine’s orders, but Christine cannot resist telling her maid Therese, who has accompanied her, to dust everything thoroughly. Christine sweeps imperiously out, telling anyone prepared to listen that Robert is always telling her that she should have been a doctor.
Fourth orchestral interlude
Christine, back in her own home, is finishing a letter to Robert. She tells him that she has met a young companion, nice, shy and affected by migraines. She ends the letter, ‘Your sad, neglected and lonely wife’, but rethinks the ‘lonely’ when she remembers that Lummer has already been for dinner several times. She gives Robert instructions about not working too hard, not smoking too much – all the usual things. She comments that Robert cannot expect her to sit at home being bored – after all, the friends that he brings to the house are all old fossils and they are interested in him, not her. The cook enters to ask about dinner and is sent off with a flea in her ear, and a reminder that the baron will be coming to dinner. ‘Again!’ she dares to comment. At this moment, Lummer himself arrives. Christine welcomes him and gushes about how he can help her with the household accounts. The conversation peters out when Christine discovers that he has met a friend, that he has been skiing and that his lodgings are very comfortable. Christine tries to make him feel at home by giving him a page of the newspaper to read, and then starts reading out to him snippets of gossip from the pages that she is reading. In between domestic comments, it emerges that Lummer’s brother will not support him, and Lummer tentatively starts to ask Christine for a huge favour, explaining that he has an ambition so study nature and to travel, but that he does not have enough money to achieve this aim. Christine refuses to rise to the occasion, but suggests that since Robert is a kind, helpful, generous man, he will no doubt want to help the young student who has become the object of her ‘sympathie’. At the prospect of meeting Robert, Lummer begins to back off, turning down the invitation to stay to dinner and hinting more overtly that he needs a favour. They agree to meet the following morning.
Fifth orchestral interlude
In his digs, Lummer is lolling about smoking a cigarette; his migraines are a complete invention. He calls to the notary’s wife to send up his trunk and tells her that he may have to leave soon. He sings a trite little song about a girlfriend, who now turns up, dressed for a skiing trip. He sends her off while he muses about how he intends to put his request to Christine, after flattering her into her usual state of twittering sweetness. He starts to write a note.
Sixth orchestral interlude
Christine has now received Lummer’s note: it is a brazen request for a thousand marks. She is flabbergasted and furious, and when Lummer turns up, she immediately sends him back to wipe his feet, commenting that it is easy to see that he is not married (obviously a Strauss family joke). She tells him that his request is quite out of the question, and suggests that he might take private pupils to make some money for himself. At this moment, a letter arrives, addressed to Robert. Christine assumes that it is a begging letter and opens it, finding the message ‘Sweety-pie; fix me two more tickets for the opera! And afterwards, in the bar as usual. Your own Mitzi Meier’. Christine is apoplectic with rage and angrily tells Lummer to leave. In an incandescent fury, she writes a telegram to Robert – ‘You know Mitzi Meier. This is proof of your betrayal. We are therefore parted for ever’ – calls Anna and tells her to send the telegram and to pack for immediate departure. Anna is perplexed, but Christine just tells her to get on with it.
Seventh orchestral interlude
In Bubi’s bedroom, his mother tells the boy that his father is a cruel and evil man and that they must leave and never see him again. Bubi protests that it is Christine who always behaves nastily, but she silences him and kneels weeping by his bed, protesting that she had always been far too good for Robert.
In the living-room of the house of a top businessman, a group of friends are playing cards; skat is a fast-moving sort of cross between bridge and poker. The players, the businessman himself, a conductor named Stroh, a barrister and an opera singer, are all clearly friends of Robert and are discussing Christine’s general behaviour and expressing their overall sympathy for him, when Robert himself arrives, apologising that a rehearsal went on too long. The others tease Robert about his wife and Robert joins the good-natured skat game and the banter, defending his wife whenever the others begin to criticise her. Then Christine’s telegram arrives and Robert is thunderstruck. He reads it out to the others and Stroh ribs him for knowing Mitzi Meier as well. But Robert is not amused, and abruptly leaves. His friends sympathise with his plight and carry on with the game.
Eighth orchestral interlude
Christine arrives at the lawyer’s office and demands a divorce immediately. The lawyer (in whose house Lummer is lodging) thinks that he understands the situation and Christine is immediately insulted. Her indignation flares even more when the lawyer says that he has known Robert for too long to believe that he is at fault and tells Christine that he will do nothing until he has spoken to Robert. Christine is furious and produces the letter from Mitzi Meier, but the lawyer explains that this is not evidence and refuses to act. Christine storms out to find another lawyer.
Ninth, stormy, orchestral interlude
In the Prater in Vienna, during a pretty wild storm, Robert is distraught, pacing up and down trying to work out what can have happened. The conductor Stroh finds him and explains that the note was intended for him, and that Mitzi Meier had made a mistake over the name. He has been to see her and established that it was a genuine error – the tart had looked the name up in the telephone book, knowing that she knew a conductor whose name began with ‘Stro…’. Robert is relieved and tells Stroh to go immediately to Christine and tell her the truth.
Tenth orchestral interlude
Back in the Storch home, Christine is busy packing, or rather ordering Anna to pack and blaming her for getting everything wrong. It emerges that she has sent Lummer to Vienna to track down Mitzi Meier and find out the truth. Anna suggests that it might have been a good idea to have given him a photograph of Robert to see whether Meier recognised him, but Christine simply berates Anna for not making that suggestion earlier. Therese brings in a telegram (the tenth) from Robert which Christine will not open, but Anna persuades her to, and she reads that the whole issue is now solved and that Stroh is on his way to explain everything. Christine refuses to accept this, saying that men always stick together and that Richard and Stroh have concocted a lie to get Richard off the hook. Therese now announces that Stroh has arrived, and Christine tells her to put ‘the brute’ in the study where she will join him shortly.
Eleventh orchestral interlude
Stroh’s confession has convinced Christine, and she is now awaiting Robert’s immediate arrival, but when he comes in, she fends him off, telling him that she has suffered terribly and that he seems to be taking it all very lightly. The evidence might have proved his innocence this time, but who knows what might happen in the future. Robert is speechless, and when Christine accuses him of causing her grief, he tells her that he knows that she asked the lawyer for a divorce. She retorts that she doesn’t believe a word of Stroh’s explanation, that she regrets ever marrying Robert at all, and that she always knew it would end like this. So the divorce must go ahead. Robert storms out.
Lummer now turns up with news that he has tracked Mitzi Meier down and that she claims to know the conductor Storch very well. Christine rounds on him, telling him that he is useless and that it is Stroh that Mitzi Meier knows, and that her beloved Robert is entirely innocent. She tells Lummer that Robert has returned, and at this news, Lummer, completely outflanked, makes a very hasty exit.
Robert now returns, passing Lummer in the hallway. When Christine tells him that that was Lummer, he is amused, explaining that the lawyer had told him all about Herr Baron Lummer, and that he has returned in order that his wife should not be on her own any longer. Christine, completely wrong-footed, tries to be indignant. She says that she really would have gone off with Bubi, and demanded the house in settlement, but when it emerges that Lummer had asked her for a thousand marks, Robert simply bursts out laughing, and says that since Lummer had kept her amused, he will be happy to sponsor Lummer in the future. Christine confesses that Lummer was actually poor company, because when you want to argue with someone, you need common ground, otherwise there is no fun.
With some shame (but not much) Christine says that she will never contradict Robert again, and that his anger a few minutes earlier had reminder her how much she loves him; she asks him to forgive her, telling him that they have the perfect marriage.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
The life and operas of Richard Strauss
The background to the writing of Intermezzo
The plots of Strauss’s other operas
Other operas with autobiographical elements in the plot
© Roger Witts 2008