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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Opera Review: Old Money, New Voices

The Met revives Richard Strauss' nostalgic Arabella.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Half empty, or half full? Malin Byström in Arabella.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Richard Strauss' Arabella is a girl with a bad reputation.

This is the last of the composer's collaborations with his favorite librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Arabella was planned to be a second raid on the mix of romantic comedy and Viennese nostalgia that made Der Rosenkavalier the duo's biggest success. Hoffmansthal died leaving only Act I as a finished work. (Strauss worked from his drafts of the second and third acts.) When Arabella premiered (in 1934) the Great Depression was still on. The Nazis were in power. The opera, a sentimental love story set around a grand evening out in Vienna, was destined to join the ranks of Strauss' lesser stage works.

On Thursday night, the Metropolitan Opera used Arabella to formally introduce  a new crop of European singers. Malin Byström has appeared at the house before, singing in the second cast of Dez McAnuff's disastrous 2012 production of Faust. Other newcomers included baritone Michael Volle (Mandryka) tenor Roberto Saccà (Matteo) and soprano Juliane Banse, saddled with the all-but-unsingable role of Zdenka. Finally, Martin Winkler and Catherine Wyn-Rogers made winning Met debuts in the minor roles of Arabella and Zdenka's parents.

Let's start with Ms. Byström. First, she looks like an Arabella--tall, slender and elegant with an aristocrat's bearing that occasionally yields to girlish delight. (The costumes are all gorgeous.) She has a full soprano, supple through the middle register with a bright, generally pleasing tone, although the part lies a shade heavy for her voice. At the end of Act I, "Mein Elemer!" held the audience rapt. However, like the von Waldner family's shabby hotel accommodations, the wear began to show in the later acts. In the ball scene, the upper register thinned out, with the voice turning raw and exposed at the  beginning of Act III. She sang a moving final scene, melting into Mandryka's arms as the silvery tone of the early scenes suddenly restored itself. in the opera's reunion with Mandryka. (A well-placed glass of water may have helped matters.)

Mr. Volle made a generally strong house debut. He is not conventionally handsome, and appeared more like the Count's aged war comrade than a dashing young land-owner. He came into his own in the long Act II lovers' duet, injecting realistic notes into his acting, warmth into his singing and a command of the difficult upper register that causes most baritones to shy away from singing Mandryka.When he imagined that Arabella was cheating on him, Mr. Volle hastened to show the boorish, rustic qualities of this role that make Mandryka a cousin to Baron Ochs. And yet, he was just as quick to forgive her, showing the many sides of this complex and entertaining character. This is a singer who has made a considerable stir in Wagner roles in Europe and he will soon be familiar to New York audiences as well.

If Arabella is the Strauss-Hoffmansthal equivalent of a Shakespeare "problem play", then Zdenka/Zdenko is its most problematic character. In her Met debut, Juliane Banse joined the ranks of sopranos who are defeated by a high tessitura and some of Strauss' cruelest writing for the soprano voice. The part requires a bright upper register and a "white" pitch that is meant to sound youthful but comes off as obnoxious. However, there was payoff in Ms. Banse's dramatic interpretation of the conflicted character. She acted the part convincingly, serving as an able comic foil and managing some lovely notes in her brief final duet with Matteo.

Strauss wrote some tough parts for tenors, preferring the sound of the soprano . Last night, Roberto Saccà bore the brunt of the composer's wrath, singing Matteo with a  unvarying tone and a stentorian delivery that did no favors to the character or the audience. Matching Mr. Saccà in terms of shrillness was Audrey Luna as the Fiakarmilli, the riding crop-swinging top-hatted mascot of the Cabbies' Ball. Her long aria is the opera's low point, allowing the coloratura soprano to use her peculiar brand of vocal acrobatics to indulge in a spate of yodeling. (That's not an attack on Ms. Luna's singing technique--the character's caterwauls are written into the score.)

The handsome production by Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen still looks good, but maybe that has something to do with how infrequently the Met has mounted this opera since 1983. Philippe Auguin's fussy conducting had command of the opera's waltz rhythms but not much else. Given the difficulties faced by this talented cast and the serio-comic problems of the unfinished libretto, this revival may well be Arabella's last dance at the Met for a very long time.

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