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TV REVIEW : Breathing New Life Into Strauss' 'Arabella'


Richard Strauss' "Arabella"-- which PBS will telecast tonight in a "live" Metropolitan Opera production taped last November--has always languished, to a degree, in the shade of "Der Rosenkavalier."

The reasons are as obvious as they are superficial. Both operas have literate, semi-comic texts by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Both take place in historic Vienna (though a century apart). Both focus on amorous introspection and silly intrigue. Both offer delicate portraits of a heroine notable for her sensitivity and wisdom, and both require another soprano to spend most of the evening wearing pants.

But "Arabella" had its premiere in 1933--22 years after the triumph of "Rosenkavalier." Although determinedly lighthearted, the later opus emerged from a Europe troubled by immediate wars, one finished and another looming. Hofmannsthal, who died in 1929, had been unable to polish more than a third of the rough-draft narrative, which manages to culminate in a bizarre encounter between the wrong lovers in a darkened (offstage) bedroom.

"Arabella" has its problems, to be sure. It suffers certain longueurs and it sometimes demands the suspension of disbelief beyond the norm. Yet it also has its emphatic charms.

And, without doubt, it contains some of the most glorious music Strauss ever wrote: the ethereal duet for Arabella and Zdenka, her faux brother; the heroine's introspective monologue at the end of the first act; the instant love duet for Arabella and her noble-rustic suitor, Mandryka; and, perhaps most notable and most typical of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration, the final reconciliation scene on the stairs.

Ultimately, the success of this opera depends on the singing-actress cast in the title role. She must be beautiful yet mysterious, warm yet aloof, mature yet unspoiled. Her dauntless quest for "der Richtige"--the right man--must be predicated on credible idealism rather than pre-feminist idolatry. She must be responsive to the niceties of the text, and she must sing with a shimmering spinto that can plumb the depths one moment, soar to the heights the next and sustain long, arching phrases with elegant ease in the process.

Kiri Te Kanawa, for whom the Met staged this production, is just about perfect in the role. At 50, she may not be quite the dewy creature universally adored in San Francisco 15 years ago, but time has been very kind to her. Smiling through melancholy, she masters the opera's vicissitudes, vocal as well as theatrical, with eloquence bolstered by technical finesse. This is a lovely, perceptive, acutely involved performance. One is grateful that it has been recorded at last for posterity.

The Met has surrounded its protagonist with appreciative duet partners: Marie McLaughlin as an impetuous, limpid Zdenka, and Wolfgang Brendel as a passionate, good-natured (if somewhat light-voiced) Mandryka who doesn't flinch from the ascending lines. Helga Dernesch and Donald McIntyre (a baritone rather than the preferred basso) are sympathetically restrained yet properly crusty as Arabella's struggling parents.

David Kuebler negotiates the ungainly music of Matteo, Arabella's unhappiest suitor, with relative grace. Natalie Dessay yodels the coloratura of the "Fiakermilli," belle of the coachmen's ball, with sufficient accuracy and pizazz to mark her as a Zerbinetta worth longing for.

The lush Metropolitan Opera orchestra--a Strauss ensemble par excellence, thanks to music director James Levine--plays brilliantly here for the authoritative Christian Thielemann.

Only one disclaimer: Ultimate judgments regarding sonic quality must be tempered. The review tapes provided by PBS were distinctly low-fidelity.

The production was sensibly staged by Otto Schenk and lavishly--in dramatic context, perhaps a bit too lavishly--designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen (sets) and Milena Canonero (costumes). Everything looks pretty, everything looks ultra-conventional. Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate that Brian Large directed the cameras to concentrate on the singing-actors.

In this "Arabella," they have faces.

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