My subject is the instrumental music that occurs during a scene or between two. Excluded are overtures, preludes, and ballet music. Sometimes the distinction between an interlude or intermezzo and a prelude can be precious, but if the music below is called an interlude, an intermezzo, or in one case a meditation I accepted it as belonging here.
The interlude, such as the ones presented below, are a relatively late phenomenon in opera. The oldest of those presented here is also the most famous. Pietro Mascagni was only 26 when his first, and most successful, opera, Cavalleria rusticana, was premiered. First performed in Rome it was a spectacular success. The intermezzo is played just after Santuzza has told Alfio that his wife has been cheating on him. The stage is empty while the music is played. The piece is everywhere. Two movies that added it to their soundtracks are Raging Bull and The Godfather III.
L’amico Fritz also by Mascagni appeared the year following Cavalleria. It has had some success in Italy, but has not caught on in the US. It too has an intermezzo that comes between the second and third acts. It occasionally is performed as a concert piece. It’s lovely even if it doesn’t touch the listener as does the earlier one. Herbert von Karajan gives it a searing reading.
Rugerro Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci in a successful attempt to emulate Mascagni’s verismo success. Its intermezzo precedes the short second act. It reprises the main tune from the Prologue in a mournful version. The two operas are inseparably linked as Cav and Pag. Arturo Toscanini who intensely disliked Leoncavallo’s opera, and perhaps the man as well, refused to conduct the second half of Cav and Pag during his tenure at the Met despite having conducted the work’s first performance. He did conduct Leoncavallo’s potboiler after he left the Met making his refusal to do so on 39th and Broadway perplexing.
Jules Massenet’opera, Thaïs, is about a hooker who finds God and a monk who loses Him; it was first performed in 1894. The famous Méditation for solo violin and orchestra separates the two scenes of Act 2. The version linked is played by the terrific young violinist Ray Chen with a piano accompaniment.
Two of Puccini’s most popular operas have intermezzi. Acts 2 and 3 of Manon Lescaut are separated by a brief intermezzo. It depicts Manon’s fall from the luxury of Act 2 to the prison of the next. James Levine lead the Met’s orchestra in a 2008 performance.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has an intermezzo that follows the Humming Chorus at the end of Act 2. It leads to the final act. It ominously conveys the tragic denouement that is about to follow.
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was a composer of gentle comedies. His one tragic opera, I gioielli della Madonna, was first performed in 1913. It has a particularly gory and salacious plot, so much so that it likely shocked its composer. In the remaining 35 years of his life he never wrote another opera to a serious libretto. The intermezzo that introduces Act 3 is frequently played as a concert piece.
Richard Strauss wrote an opera, to his own libretto, entitled Intermezzo (1924). It was based on his own life and domestic situation as was his Symphonia Domestica. Naturally, it contains four intermezzi. The opera’s title is intended to refer to the intermezzi that used to be staged during the intermissions of serious operas during the 18th century, sort of mini-comic-operas, easy to follow with themes usually about marital confusions and other light comedies. The interludes from the opera are often played as concert works. The second of these is especially beautiful.
Benjamin Britten’s most performed opera is Peter Grimes. The story of a crazed fisherman contains six sea interludes. Four of them, in rearranged order, are commonly on the program of symphony orchestras. This music is haunting and powerful. Sometimes the interlude written as a passacaglia is also included. The 6th interlude never makes it away from the opera. Britten who was an admirer of Shostakovich might have been influenced by the Russian’s use of interludes in his last opera (see below). Four Sea Interludes
Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the opera that almost got him killed by Stalin, has 5 interludes that are the subject of an earlier article here. It’s linked below. I’m sure you can think of other orchestral music in operas that I might have included. But these will do for now.