Two principals lift maladroit conducting in Met’s “Arabella”

Fri Apr 04, 2014 at 12:06 pm
Malin Byström stars in the title role of Strauss’s “Arabella” at the Metropolitan Opera.   Photo: Marty Sohl

Malin Byström stars in the title role of Strauss’s “Arabella” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: Marty Sohl

Richard Strauss’s Arabella is probably not anyone’s idea of an ideal love story. The opera’s seemingly carefree trajectory is interrupted by a bout of frightening jealousy, only to be resolved with spectacular haste.

Yet that didn’t stop the composer from writing a lovely score—not as dark as Die Frau ohne Schatten nor as richly textured as Der Rosenkavalier, but still with that unmistakable Straussian combination of pungent harmony and deep, simmering sentiment.

A pair of strong leading performances lifted the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Arabella, but Thursday’s night’s opener was not without its frustrations.

The greatest of these came from the pit. Philippe Auguin had trouble keeping all the moving parts in order, causing more confusion than clarity in Strauss’s already complex writing. There was little imagination in his reading, and the usually robust Met orchestra sounded oddly anemic. Auguin’s best moments came in the second act, when the orchestra rallied for a moment of romantic sweep as the leading couple shared their first kiss. But even there, ensemble suffered, forcing the singers to break their rapt eye contact to stare into the pit.

The lead singers, fortunately, were able to overcome the conducting woes. Malin Byström had previously sung only a handful of performances at the Met (Marguerite in Faust, 2011), but she proved more than capable of tackling the tile role in Strauss’s roller-coaster romance. She was utterly convincing as the beautiful debutante, projecting a mix of youthful innocence and worldly maturity. She has an ideal voice for the part—warm and silken in its middle register, with a generous but nimble vibrato. The role doesn’t often venture into extreme highs or lows, which meant that Byström was able to carry a velvet tone through most of the performance, but when she needed to soar, she did so magnificently.

Byström was cautious with her phrasing, never risking a true piano, but it was hard to blame her, as Auguin so often threatened to cover the singers. She performed the opera’s signature aria, “Mein Elemer,” with gripping focus, fighting constantly to maintain her composure as she navigated a range of emotions and romantic thoughts.

She showed tender, motherly affection toward her younger sister Zdenka, portrayed by Juliane Banse in her Met debut. Banse sang with a light, warbling tone, and sparkled in her portrayal of the cheeky tomboy whose masculine disguise causes mass consternation and confusion.

Michael Volle made a much-ballyhooed debut as the rich but rustic suitor Mandryka, and delivered vocally. He has a dark, oaky voice of immense power and weight, and employed it with kinetic energy.

Dramatically, Volle did what he could with what he had. He was affectingly sheepish at the beginning of the ball in the second act, but became progressively more terrifying as he was consumed by jealous rage. Volle is 54, a bit seasoned for the role. When he tromped onstage in the first act wearing a gigantic fur coat, he seemed more like an eccentric, lecherous man-of-a-certain-age than a roguish, youngish love interest. Volle is rumored to be the Met’s next Wotan, a role that, with his maturity and physical presence, he’ll surely inhabit more naturally.

Audrey Luna stood out among an uneven supporting cast as the coquettish Fiakermilli. The coloratura soprano dazzled a few years ago when she inaugurated the role of Ariel in the Met premiere of The Tempest—The fireworks in this part aren’t quite so jaw-dropping, but Luna still impressed with her easy effervescence. Martin Winkler made a strong debut as Count Waldner, singing with a taut bass-baritone and poignantly channeling the cares and frustrations of the head of a declining household.

His Countess, meanwhile, portrayed by Catherine Wyn-Rogers in her debut, was wobbly and unsure of pitch, making for a touch-and-go opening scene when paired with the straining mezzo-soprano of Victoria Livengood’s fortune teller. Roberto Saccà brought considerable firepower but also considerable effort to the obsessive lieutenant Matteo. Brian Jagde blustered and belted his way through the role of Elemer.

There is unfortunately little to command attention in Otto Schenk’s 1983 production. After the first act, which shows the family’s living room in all its dust-covered opulence, the sets and costumes are little more than eye candy. Stephen Pickover’s stage direction neither added nor interfered, allowing the actors to move through the drama freely and naturally.

Arabella runs through April 24.

One Response to “Two principals lift maladroit conducting in Met’s “Arabella””

  1. Posted Apr 08, 2014 at 12:30 am by Imanuel Willheim

    Dear Mr. Simpson
    Thanks for at least one serious, not fawning review of Arabella. Unfortunately Volle’s voice seems to have seen better days. Both his top and bottom are fading.
    IWillheim, prof emeritus, Hartt School ,
    Univ. of Hartford

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