Friday, November 15, 2013

Regional Opera At Its Worst, Once Again

Walter Legge, writing at a time during which conventional wisdom believed that Richard Strauss went through a bad period between 1916, the year in which the final version of “Ariadne Auf Naxos” was premiered, and 1942, the year in which the wondrous “Capriccio” was unveiled, asserted that “Arabella”, from 1933, was a failure. “Arabella”, Legge argued, was nothing more than “a weak mixture of ‘Rosencavalier’ and water” and did not merit attention.

To this day, many persons share Legge’s assessment of “Arabella”—even those who have come to appreciate the beauties of Strauss’s other operas of the 1920s and 1930s. “Arabella” indeed does have much in common with “Der Rosencavalier”, particularly the class distinctions that are key elements in the plots of both works as well as the Viennese settings, firmly grounded in past (but vastly different) epochs.

Yet “Arabella” is, I believe, uniquely rewarding, featuring as it does a charming, operetta-like plot set to profound music—to which is added a fraught undertow of economic concern, the overwhelming issue of the years during which Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the libretto and Strauss the music. Is there any other opera that so vividly presents the waning financial fortunes of a family during perilous times?

I have always liked “Arabella”—in fact, I prefer it to “Der Rosencavalier”—and I believe my fondness has much to do with the opera’s title character, a most complex and winning young woman. Arabella is intelligent, well-bred, charming, spirited, emotionally generous—and irritating when she wants to be. She is loyal to her family, gracious to all (except when someone affronts her), prepared to deal with realities and make sacrifices—and yet she always maintains her essential dignity and inherent goodness (as well as a stiff backbone). Arabella is one of opera’s most enchanting characters.

“Arabella” needs only two things to come alive in performance: a great Arabella; and a decent Strauss orchestra.

Last night, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to attend Minnesota Opera’s current production of “Arabella” (my parents and my sister-in-law had attended opening night).

There was no Strauss orchestra in the pit—there was a pickup ensemble that did not know how to approximate a lustrous Strauss sound. Minnesota Opera does not often present Strauss operas, and the contracted pit players were, stylistically, at sea. It was a rough—and loud—account of the glorious score we heard, blustery and insensitive, the sort of account to be encountered only in places that are music backwaters.

The conductor was Michael Christie, in his second year as Music Director of Minnesota Opera. I become less impressed with Christie with each encounter. He is a routinier—and a routinier without a first-class orchestra at his disposal. Who wants to hear a routinier leading a pickup group? In any event, Christie has no feel for Strauss; a Strauss conductor should have been engaged for the occasion.

The Arabella was a youngish American soprano whose career is centered in Germany. Two years ago she had been a musically bland, musically unsatisfying Fiordiligi in Minnesota Opera’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”. This season, her Arabella was less bland—the singer certainly tried to create a compelling musical characterization—but the final result was nothing more than a game try. At root, the singer does not have the glamorous voice for the part—and an Arabella without a glamorous voice is an Arabella no one wants to hear. (My father referred to her as “a hand-me-down version of Pamela Coburn”—and dedicated operagoers will know, instantly and precisely, what my father meant.)

The Mandryka was terrible. Simply put, the singer lacked the voice for major roles. He should have been replaced during the rehearsal period.

The performance belonged to the secondary couple, Zdenka and Matteo. (All operettas have a secondary couple; Hofmannsthal observed acutely every convention of the operetta stage while fashioning his “Arabella” scenario.) Elizabeth Futral, a superb actress with a less-than-superb voice, who had been the Musetta in last season’s Lyric Opera Of Chicago “La Boheme”, sang Zdenka. Brian Jagde, a young tenor in possession of the finest voice of the night (but not the finest artistry), sang Matteo.

The character parts, of which there are many in “Arabella”, were well-taken. I thought Arabella’s (and Zdenka’s) mother and father were particularly fine. (The Count Waldner had appeared in last season’s Chicago “Boheme”, too—as Benoit/Alcindoro.)

The physical production was from Santa Fe Opera, which had first presented this production in 2012. It was, above all, a budget-conscious production, with a semi-circular unit set that was neither attractive nor pleasing (but easy to ship; the production clearly had been designed with one overriding objective: to achieve lots of rentals). The costuming, too, was unattractive. The stage and costume design were of indeterminate period, and suggested at least six different decades, perhaps more, from the 1860s to the 1920s.

Since the plot of the opera and the plot’s conventions are firmly rooted in 1860, and reflect the uncertainties, economic and political, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire twelve years into the shaky early reign of Franz Josef (the opera is set one year after the disastrous Second Italian War Of Independence and six years before the even more disastrous Austro-Prussian War), for a production not to be tied to 1860 makes no sense.

The stage direction was busy—and shockingly unstylish. The director must have believed that large doses of hokum and vulgarity were necessary in order for the opera to come across to a contemporary American audience.

On that issue, the director was wrong. A well-presented “Arabella” will grip any audience anywhere.

Persons in Minnesota, however, did not get the chance to see that for themselves . . .

Whoever is making artistic decisions at Minnesota Opera is making disastrous choices over and over. Casting, selection of imported productions, engagement of stage directors: all reflect someone in possession of no judgment and no taste.


  1. "Arabella" is my favorite Strauss opera after "Elektra." The similarities between this and "Der Rosenkavalier" are noted, but I have never been able to fall in love with the latter, even after much effort to do so over the years.

    I adore Strauss' orchestrations, but sometimes, as with "Die Frau ohne Schatten," I feel like he is beating me over the head again and again; I am quickly fatigued.

    Two other Strauss operas I admire, "Ariadne" and "Daphne."

    For some reason I have never liked "Capriccio," even though I admit it is one of his best stage works (my loss).

    Without a great Strauss orchestra in the pit I would not even bother to go.

  2. We bought the Minnesota Opera Thursday subscription this year. We did not expect to hear a fine Strauss orchestra in “Arabella”, but we thought there might be something salvageable in the performance. Living in Minnesota, we shall not have many opportunities to hear “Arabella”.

    I wonder whether the current performances are the first in Minnesota for “Arabella”. I looked through the Metropolitan Opera archives to see whether the Met had ever toured “Arabella” to Minneapolis, and it had not.

    Opera is not big in the Twin Cities. Minnesota Opera only got off the ground once the Met stopped appearing here each Spring, and Minnesota Opera more or less avoids anything other than standard repertory. Other than an Argento opera (a nod to a local composer), “Arabella” is the most offbeat of this season’s Minnesota Opera presentations.