Friday, May 02, 2014

The forgiveness story Gotham needs

Arabella - Metropolitan Opera, 4/3, 4/11, 4/19 & 4/24/2014
Byström/Wall, Banse, Volle, Luna, Saccà/Sorensen / Auguin

This final Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaboration is, disconcertingly for the foolish or first-time listener, a piece of two halves. The first act is thoroughly Hofmannsthal: germinated from his prewar story "Lucidor" -- in which the characters now called Matteo and Zdenka were the leads and Arabella herself a cutout -- it draws his characteristic passive/reflective heroine at a point of crucial suspension and ambivalence from/with a rather more "vulgar and dubious" social order than the Marschallin's rococo Vienna. From this vantage, Arabella's story is one of survival -- of her self (the romantic concern), her family (the aristocratic) and, implicitly but crucially, her civilization (the artistic-philosophical). It is the last that sticks out, for better and for worse. As excellent a stage figure as Mandryka now cuts, he, as the circa-1927 addition to the tale, looks on a broader view awfully like the deus ex machina for not only Arabella's fate or family, but for her world as well, the last version of which was looking awfully dicey in those days of hyperinflation and paramilitary streetfights. For Arabella is, like all big civilizational tales (including Rosenkavalier and Frau, but also of course Meistersinger) a story of succession and renewal... only now it is not the melancholy blessing from on high of the Marschallin nor the fantastic struggles of FroSch's fairyland couples that we get but the frankly desperate last-minute pleas of an insolvent family in a colorful but profligate milieu. In such a tale Mandryka seems to bear the weight of not only the characters' desperate faith in a lurking regenerative power but the author's, and it is crushing to realize that the (former) Empire's backwater lands and woods had, by the time of the opera's conception, no such reserve of honest vitality -- only its opposite. Whatever hopes Hofmannsthal may in fact have held were, in any case, dashed as he finished revising this act: his son commited suicide, he himself had a fatal stroke while dressing for his son's funeral, and his death at least spared him from having to see just how much further his countrymen could sink.

It's fortunate, then, that two latter acts suggest a different perspective. Their scheme is in fact the work of Strauss himself, who, dissatisfied with early drafts (and after offering some wild and wacky suggestions that were not accepted), proposed the moral crux of these acts in one letter to Hofmannsthal (July 23, 1928) and Act II's overall structure in another (August 8). From this vantage it becomes a piece about forgiveness, not fate, making it the genders-reversed followup to their immediately previous collaboration, The Egyptian Helen. Mandryka, whom Hofmannsthal had intended to be steadfast and doubtless throughout, by Strauss' twist becomes complicit in the general moral bankruptcy. (Though it was surely Hofmannsthal who found the echo of Desdemona herein.) He delivers the most unkindest cut of all, taking Arabella to be both less good and more ordinary than she miraculously is, and piling on insult upon insult to such effect. From this low it takes two recognition scenes to settle things for the better: the first, as one has expected, comes between Zdenka and Matteo, but in the second, Arabella and Mandryka do not quite recognize each other before they mutually recognize the third presence that frees them from their dead end. It's this presence -- which one might call grace, or happiness, or love, or transformation or (to be maximally literal) the sound of one of Strauss' greatest orchestral introductions, that accompanies Arabella down the steps and makes her solo, intensely private procession with the glass as momentous as the grand panorama of Meistersinger Act III.

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Still, for all the glories of each part and perspective, the combination may be hard to swallow as a whole. For what kind of fate poses, to a young woman navigating through a minefield of the merely- or ruinously-hedonistic, the question of what happens if even the longed-for last chance man is -- or can be -- as cheap and faithless as the rest? A rather nastily ironic one, in better times, but in darker days the failure of virtue and of the belief in virtue is a question of general and continuous interest, as the worse part of human nature seems everywhere ascendant. So it was in 1929.

(Incidentally, it seems to me that the tradition in some houses -- after Clemens Krauss -- of running Acts II and III together is an attempt to meld the two parts of the opera by just minimizing this latter part's significance, blending its setup and resolution into a blur of Viennese color and incident. This makes for a more fairy-tale, less contemplative version, in a hurry to get to the musical highlights... as was probably wanted during the moral midnight of the Nazi era and the fragile restoration of normalcy that followed.)

It is not now 1929 -- barbaric mobs in civilized countries are so far only trying to wreck people's livelihoods via the internet -- but the tide of moral nihilism has risen even higher of late than is usual. Awareness of this has leaked even into the popular culture, as the last two years' more serious forays into the superhero movie genre (The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel) each turned on the question of whether we the people are in fact worth the trouble of saving. Like Mandryka near the end of his story, we watch those films knowing that the deserved answer may well be "no", yet hoping for some happier outcome nonetheless. And if that grace fails in real life... ah well! At least we're again in a state to savor this opera.

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The light and the serious sides of Arabella run through the title part too. For Malin Byström they encompassed two different faculties: as in her debut Marguerite, the voice is rich and mezzo-colored and ideal for, e.g., the semiocomic gravity of Act II's kiss-off of the suitors as well as for the pain and glory of the final Act. But again as in that Marguerite, her top notes (though they improved through this run) are workmanlike, not light... and therefore she made her contrasting impression with physical work alone. The balance varied from show to show and seat to seat: from closer locations one noticed that despite her blend of classic-Strauss-soprano features, Byström has a rapid-fire mobility of facial expression that's less familiar in these roles. This wasn't a bad correlative to Arabella's flightier moods, but in the April 11 performance -- with the cast seemingly bouyed & relaxed by a shared sense of the night's magic -- it was threatening to spill over into more serious action.

The more classic Arabella was Erin Wall's on the last night of the run. The Canadian soprano was free from whatever caused the odd tonal coloration of her 2009 house debut, and delivered the full lovely measure of Strauss-heroine sound and composure. With Wall, as with her great predecessors, the lighter aspect of the character is always accessible in the silvery float of her high notes, while the serious aspect never quite disappears from her phrases and bodily bearing. Though a longer run could have helped -- Auguin, seemingly accustomed to letting Byström push the pace in latter-act solo interjections, didn't wholly adapt to Wall's more deliberate approach -- the one show Wall had was still in any case a big success. I'd love to see what she can do in Strauss with a full set of rehearsals and performances.

The other split role was Matteo. Originally assigned to debuting German-Italian tenor Roberto Sacca, it was taken over (wholly, in 4/19, and for the final act the -- unreviewed here -- performance before that) by Lindemann alum Garrett Sorenson upon Sacca's illness. They, like the Arabellas, presented hugely contrasting perspectives: Sacca -- intense, short, and unusually weighty of sound -- was a worrisome, perhaps slightly deranged dead-serious Matteo, while Sorenson -- taller, more rotund, and more straightforwardly boyish -- kept a giant-puppyish cuteness even in suicidal despair. Sorenson was certainly easier to like, with Sacca making the confrontation at Act III's start truly squirm-worthy. Both were, in any case, good.

Equally good, if not better, were the constants in the casts. Michael Volle, making his Met debut, looked a bit too old for Mandryka -- couldn't the house have provided better hair? -- but his size and hearty physical manner definitely fit. The sound was full and excellently phrased. Juliane Banse, also making her Met debut (as a fairly late replacement for Genia Kühmeier), was a perfectly-acted and nearly-perfectly-sung Zdenka: I only missed the way some sopranos have been able to color "Licht" and "Dunkel" (at the center of the big duet "Aber der Richtige") with wonderfully contrasting timbres. (The pants-aspect of the role, incidentally, was on Kate Lindsey's level. Does she sing the Composer?) And I can't praise enough the wonderful character-acting (and singing) of Austrian bass-baritone Martin Winkler as the girls' father and English mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers as their mother. They too, were making their debuts, as was the first of a surprisingly strong and stage-present set of three suitors: Brian Jagde (Elemer), Alexey Lavrov (Dominik), and the always notable Keith Miller (Lamoral). High soprano Audrey Luna's pyrotechnic success as Ariel in Ades' Tempest, however, was more of line than articulation, and that manner didn't fit as well with Fiakermilli's yodeling.

I've found conductor Philippe Auguin less than impressive in the past -- his dry pit work was about the only imperfect thing about that titanic and truly stunning 2006 Lohengrin revival -- but he was the heart of this glorious run, building the show act by act to a heartbreakingly direct final scene. The bizarre thing is that on the first night -- when, with the singers getting their legs under them, his was undoubtedly the most complete success -- some jackass from the upper sections booed him like crazy at curtain calls. As I've mentioned before, I'm actually pro-booing, but this sort of foolishness makes the practice look bad. The only justification I can think of is for presenting a cut version of the score... but Auguin actually restored one of the Act II cuts from Thielemann's 1994 premiere run -- the Countess/Dominik bit -- though he did keep the snip to Mandryka/Milli in that act and Arabella/Zdenka in the Act III climax. On the whole, he may have shown a better sense of Straussian shape and phrase than even the very good Vladimir Jurowski, and I now wonder whether Auguin himself wouldn't have improved considerably on his own (again dry) FroSch from 2003.

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This capped an excellent anniversary season for Strauss in New York. Unfortunately none of the shows were Peter Gelb productions, and thus none were transmitted for moviecast or recorded for Blu-Ray release.

I hope my readers saw -- or at least remotely heard -- some.