Opera Critic

For an opera that premiered in the fateful year of 1933, Richard Strauss’s Arabella tries very hard to capture the nostalgic spirit of the composer’s masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, which first graced audiences more than twenty years earlier. If Arabella’s story of an impoverished noble family marrying off its daughter to a stranger with whom she falls in love at first sight is a naturally happy one, the circumstances of the opera’s premiere were not. Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmansthall left the text unfinished at the time of his sudden death in 1929, just two days after his son committed suicide. The July 1933 premiere came only a few months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany. Nazi political directives in the cultural sphere had already led to the dismissal of the premiere’s conductor Fritz Busch. Strauss only salvaged the situation by using this disruption to secure the appointment of his own preferred artists to carry on. Busch was replaced by Clemens Krauss, in whom Strauss justifiably put much faith, and Viorica Ursuleac, who would later become Krauss’s wife, created the opera’s title role. Nevertheless, Arabella never rose to the top tier of the Strauss repertoire. Apart from a burst of international performances (and the Decca/London recording) starring Lisa della Casa, the opera has languished until the near present. The Paris opera staged it for the first time in 1981, despite the direction’s slight bent for recent German works during the World War II occupation.

Only the superb Straussian talent of Renee Fleming, one of the few singers today who merits the diva mantle, seems to give Arabella much currency. Indeed, her performance in Paris’s new production by Marco Arturo Marelli proved why this is the case. Possessed of a voice that she herself describes as fitting Strauss’s music “like a glove,” Fleming has the ability to deliver both the dramatic complexities of the composer’s major characters and float the sumptuous notes needed to reconcile the competing harmonies of his demanding scores. The first act narration “Aber der Richtige,” a soulful meditation on meeting the love of her life, sounded reticent, perhaps even a bit devoiced, but the vigorous passion of her second and third act singing more than made up for this deficiency. I last heard Fleming in the role eleven years ago, in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production. She has lost some of the thrilled girlishness the role demands, but her dramatic effect has only strengthened, with the addition of intriguing nuances that few other singers can match.

Beyond the title role, the cast functions essentially as an ensemble in a comedy of manners. Arabella’s true love Mandryka came out in fine form in the capable singing and acting of Michael Volle. A certain roughness on the vocal edges only added to the character’s allure when contrasted to the suave facilities of Arabella’s callow suitors. The promising young German soprano Genia Kuhmeier brought brilliance to the strange role of Zdenka, Arabella’s sister who has been raised as a boy to economize the family finances. Zdenka’s beloved Matteo, himself a rejected suitor of Arabella, emerged convincingly thanks to the talented tenor Joseph Kaiser. His portrayal sounded nobler and less pathetic than is usually the case. Arabella’s faded aristocratic parents, Count Waldner and Adelaide, handsomely fell to veteran bass Kurt Rydl, whose aging voice fit the role to perfection, and to mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel, whose Herodias in Strauss’s Salome last September launched what has been an astoundingly entertaining season of opera in Paris. Philippe Jordan carried the orchestra with a flair and determination that has justifiably distinguished him as one of the most exciting young conductors at work today.

Marelli’s production saved the opera from late Romantic Viennese kitsch with an imaginative staging based on revolving wall segments and a rotating floor that allow swift changes of scene and mood while sustaining dramatic tension. The visual effect is dominated by white and sky blue, suggesting the heavenly aspirations of Arabella’s passions. A particularly intriguing innovation freezes the action at end of the first act, when Mandryka dreams of finally meeting Arabella, only to have it resume seamlessly at the beginning of Act II, when the newly introduced couple pledge their love to each other before Arabella goes off to dump her suitors. This fine effort stands as the last in a series of fine new productions presented this season. We can only hope 2012-2013 is as generous to Paris’s deserving audience.

- Paul du Quenoy

As Russia approached its revolutionary year in 1917, masks and magic entered its performing arts culture with such a fevered pitch that the desire for escapism has rarely been more gratingly obvious. Prokofiev’s youthful opera, which tough political circumstances forced to premiere in Chicago in 1919, grasped on to this trend. Loosely based on the work of the eighteenth-century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, The Love for Three Oranges parodies the traditional quest epic. It tells the tale of a melancholic crown prince who will die if he is not saved by laughter. Schemers who want to seize his rightful place as heir enlist the black magic of Fata Morgana to ensure this never happens, but are foiled when he laughs at Fata Morgana herself, both saving his life and defusing their plot. The wounded sorceress curses him with an incurable love for three magical oranges, which he must steal before crossing a barren desert. Punished by thirst, he opens each one to discover a princess inside. The first two die of thirst, but the friendly sorcerer Tchelio, Fata Morgana’s enemy, provides water to save the third. The spiteful Fata Morgana turns her into a rat, but the true power of love restores her to human form before the schemers can take advantage of the situation. In the end all is forgiven, and even the schemers are spared the hangman’s noose. All the while, masked mystics watch the action and debate the merits of comedy and tragedy.

What the opera could have meant in revolutionary Russia’s turbulent cultural universe is anyone’s guess. Simple escapism or a contemplation of a world in which nothing is really what it appears stand out as explanations. Gilbert Deflo’s production, which premiered in 2005, evokes the era of Russian modernism with a cool accuracy. The epic unfolds in period costumes, while the stage movement reflects the innovative, stylized approach of the modernist director Vsevolod Meyerhold, a radical supporter of the Russian Revolution who nevertheless became one of its victims.

The American tenor Charles Workman starred as the Prince. The voice is not of heroic proportions, but the limpid sounds demanded by composers working in the modernist genre suit it well. The major vocal plaudits go to the fine baritone Vincent Le Texier for his character portrayal of Tchelio. Marie-Ange Todorovitch was not quite his equal as Fata Morgana, but still catapulted into a fireball of energy thanks to the splendid scenes Deflo created for the character and her spiteful machinations. The lesser roles all went to excellent young singers who brought the plot into greater relief. The talented Franco-Algerian soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul brought a limpid beauty to the role of Princess Ninette, the surviving princess who captures the melancholic prince’s heart. And the bass Hans-Peter Scheidegger received a well deserved ovation for his brief appearance as the cook whose kitchen houses the enchanted oranges. A very rare case of a bass role written for a female character, he endowed his scene with superb comedy. The orchestra was fortunately placed in the hands of the excellent conductor Alain Altinoglu, who mastered Prokofiev’s complex score and delivered rousing renditions of the opera’s famous march.

- Paul du Quenoy

The Cleveland Orchestra’s annual residency at Carnegie Hall always raises much anticipation, particularly since its dynamic conductor Franz Welser-Möst took over the orchestra in 2002. Ten years later he has made his annual tour to New York to lead the orchestra in two concerts: an orchestral evening dominated by Brahms and Shostakovich and a concert performance of Richard Strauss’s searing opera Salome. Welser-Möst is not above criticism. His orchestral performances are sometimes found too precise and too technical to capture the grand sway of romantic works, for example. This was somewhat in evidence in the ensemble’s first concert, marred at the last minute by the cancelation of pianist Yevgeny Bronfman, who was ill. Instead of the announced Brahms Piano Concert No. 2, the orchestra found violinist Gil Shaham to perform the solo part in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The Clevelanders acquitted themselves admirably, and Shaham did well enough under the circumstances. But an element of passion was missing. The second part of the evening featured Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a haunting 2008 work which received its New York premiere in this performance. The work is harmonically strange, but not at all without power. It is even a bit spooky, with the odd requirement that the woodwind musicians whisper words relating to light and color into their instruments at times. Impossible to hold to any standard of performance because of its recent composition, all that can be said is that Welser-Möst did well to bring it to our attention. The final piece, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6, was a bit pedestrian in playing and lacked the flair that a Gergiev or Temirkanov might for obvious reasons bring to the performance.

The second Cleveland evening showcased the orchestra at its most dynamic. It is not an exaggeration to say that Welser-Möst, now the director of the Vienna State Opera, may be more of an opera conductor, so fine is his ability to make an orchestra perform to support singers. The need is nowhere more acute than in Strauss’s Salome, with its dissonant scoring for both instruments and singers. Welser-Möst led a driving performance, scarcely skipping a single nuance in the vast tableaux that must be produced. Careful attention even went into the placement of the singers on stage. Eschewing concert opera’s usual straight line at the front of the stage format, here the cast was divided into two groups and placed on raised platforms that fanned out diagonally from stage right and stage left. Fortunately, the effort was crowned with the excellently cast Nina Stemme in the title role. Famous in both Wagner and Strauss and heiress to the proud Swedish high dramatic soprano tradition of Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay, Stemme has conquered audiences everywhere with her full, rich middle register, soaring top notes, and impeccable diction. Since Salome is a rather more strident role than any Wagner heroine, there was some speculation that the voice might not be just right for the Strauss role. But it was. There is no better way to put it. Stemme’s natural range offered up the climatic highs and the chilling lows, including a delightfully monstrous G-flat at the end of the role’s meditation on the mystery of love’s capacity to outweigh the mystery of death. One left the hall wondering only how rewarding it would be to hear her in a staged performance.

Stemme’s sublime singing elided well with a truly outstanding supporting cast. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, one of the few genuinely successful soloists to emerge from the Metropolitan Opera’s troubled new Ring Cycle, mastered Jochanaan’s music with a strength and authority that only occasionally showed a hint of roughness. As Salome’s louche stepfather Herod, tenor Rudolf Schasching, known to Welser-Möst from his time as chief of Zürich’s opera but hardly known to American audiences, contributed an excellent repertoire singer’s voice into a part he obviously knows very well. Mezzo Jane Henschel was perfectly biting as his wife, Salome’s mother Herodias, who urges her daughter along on the path to evil. Garrett Sorenson’s Narraboth also stood out, and there was no reason to be disappointed with the fine ensemble cast of younger singers in supporting roles. Following on the excellent Chicago Symphony concert performance of Verdi’s Otello last season, New York should hope to hear much more fine opera in venerable Carnegie Hall. – Paul du Quenoy

The intrepid Wagner Society of Washington, DC has much to be proud of as it approaches the fifteenth anniversary of its founding. From a small number of enthusiasts meeting in a bookstore, the organization has grown into a significant cultural force in the nation’s capital, featuring monthly lecture programs, Wagner-themed trips for members, and concerts by young soloists of its Emerging Singers Program, a master class series directed by the great soprano Evelyn Lear and, until his death in 2006, her famed baritone husband Thomas Stewart. Concerts at the German Embassy and National Arts Club whetted Wagnerian appetites for this milestone Kennedy Center Concert Hall performance with the renowned Washington Chorus, an ensemble that has performed in Washington for more than half a century.

The nearly full hall and rousing audience reception left no doubts that an all-Wagner program can be dear to the hearts of Washington’s musical public. The Washington Chorus’s director Julian Wachner has grown in public esteem since assuming direction, and his efforts did not disappoint. The program roughly followed Wagner’s career in chronological progression. The first part offered the rival sailors’ choruses from the third act of The Flying Dutchman, the Festival March from Act II of Tannhäuser, the Liebestod from Tristan, the processional conclusion to Act II of Lohengrin, and the Ride of the Valkyries from Walküre. The second part consisted solely of the final two scenes of Meistersinger. Throughout the afternoon, the well rehearsed chorus spared no effort to capture Wagner at his loudest and most enjoyable. The ensemble’s fine orchestra accompanied them with exciting Wagnerian gravitas. None of the young soloists missed an opportunity to make a grand impression, and Wachner proved himself to be a model of a singer’s conductor in supporting their development. The voluble Washingtonian tenor Issachah Savage stood out for his superb, almost baritonal line in the Prize Song from Meistersinger, faltering only on highest of notes. Brent Stater’s stentorian Hans Sachs accompanied him well. Patrick Cook made clarion contributions as the Steersman in the Dutchman selection and as David in the Meistersinger scenes later on. Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham’s Isolde may not be ready for the operatic stage, but her attractive cool tones suggested that it is a valuable work in progress we may one day hail.

The only weaknesses were incidental. We probably could have done without the weakly enacted “Dance of the Prentices” in the Meistersinger selection, which was listed in the program as “semi-staged.” And it would have been less of a distraction if the program had listed which soloists were singing which selections. Nevertheless, one can hope that the Wagner Society’s Emerging Singers Program and the fine musicians it nurtures will have more opportunities to perform so professionally.

Paul du Quenoy

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