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One Hit Balances One Miss on Santa Fe Opera Schedule

by Olin Chism 8 Aug 2012 1:47 PM

The Santa Fe Opera makes Strauss’s “Arabella” a success despite its potential difficulties, but fails to overcome them in Rossini’s “Maometto II,” a relic from another operatic era.


Richard Strauss’s Arabella is a very “talky” opera, which means that the characters carry on at great length conversationally, singing their parts but not pausing to entertain the audience with solo display numbers. The singers had better have good memories, and they had better be good actors.

They are backed by a large orchestra — of which Strauss was a master — but there are very few extended passages for instrumentalists alone. The partners in the pit are there to set atmosphere and reinforce points, not paint large musical canvases.

The possibility of boredom always lurks with Arabella, but the Santa Fe Opera avoided that in a well honed performance Monday night that kept a large audience sitting in rapt attention through a span of time that seemed shorter than the clock indicated.

Arabella’s plot is kind of silly, but with an appealing bittersweet air. Arabella is the beautiful daughter of an upper class but impoverished Viennese family. She has a sister, Zdenka, who has been raised as a boy because it was too expensive in that era (about the age of Rosenkavalier) to introduce two girls to society.

Her parents hope to marry Arabella off to a rich suitor. She’s uncooperative, but after some misadventures accepts Mandryka, who’s rich enough for her parents and debonair enough for her.

One final hitch is that Mandryka thinks Arabella has cheated on him with Matteo, a good-natured young man. Actually, it’s Zdenka, tired of pretending to be a boy, who has slipped into bed with Matteo. He thinks she’s Arabella. With that cleared up, all ends happily, with two weddings in the offing.

Santa Fe brings all this together beautifully, with a strong cast, superb playing by the orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis’s direction, on-the-mark directing by Tim Albery, and sets and costumes by Tobias Hoheisel that set the right atmosphere without overstatement.

There’s not a weak link in the cast, who sing impressively while displaying superb acting skills. The principals are soprano Erin Wall as Arabella, soprano Heidi Stober as Zdenka, baritone Mark Delavan as Mandryka, bass-baritone Dale Travis as the father, mezzo Victoria Livengood as the mother and tenor Zach Borichevsky as Matteo. The numerous smaller roles are consistently well done.

There will be further Arabella performances on Aug. 17 and 23.

The presence of Arabella on this summer’s schedule is a kind of delayed tribute to the late John Crosby, former general director of the company. He was a great lover of Strauss’s music and programmed his operas frequently. His successors seemed not so interested until now.

Tuesday night’s Maometto II was a real drag. Rossini’s comic operas are always a delight, but his serious operas tend to be bogged down in conventions that are distinctly not of our time — or even the times just before us. They are full of interminable display pieces, melodic embellishments that soon wear out their welcome, and stilted plots featuring unbelievable characters that fail to capture interest.

Maometto II (that’s “Maometto Secondo” if you speak it) is an example. Maometto is a 15th-century Muslim conqueror whose forces are besieging an Italian city. The commander of the city’s defenders has a daughter who has been the secret lover of Maometto (how this has been worked out is left to the audience’s imagination). She uses her influence to trick Maometto and bring about the salvation of her city. Rather than submit to the understandably infuriated would-be conqueror, she stabs herself to death (in Santa Fe’s version, she uses Maometto’s sword).

Santa Fe tries heroically to bring life to the work. It has assembled a cast of impressive vocal technicians who can embellish a long musical line with the best of them. This certainly includes the magnificent Maometto (bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who looks as well as sings like a conqueror), the daughter (soprano Leah Crocetto), her father (tenor Bruce Sledge), and the daughter’s admirer and defender (mezzo Patricia Bardon).

Conductor Frederic Chaslin gets bright, secure sounds out of the orchestra in an impressive partnership with the singing cast.

But some of the most impressive aspects of the performance did not come directly from Rossini’s score. This includes the wonderful choreography of Peggy Hickey and fight direction of Jonathan Rider, who make the mass scenes memorable, the dramatic sets and costumes by Jon Morrell, and the superb lighting of Duane Schuler (I especially admired his use of shadows for dramatic effect).

David Alden’s stage direction is OK, but what can anyone do with all those episodes of vocal gymnastics?

There are some interesting contributions by Rossini. The choruses tend to be strong, the orchestral prelude to Act 2 is close to classic Rossini (his high-spirited wit can’t be forever suppressed) and some of the orchestral writing (again, in Act 2) seems more sophisticated than usual with this composer.

Savorers of vocal technique and antique operatic conventions might love this; others should be prepared for a long night. Maometto II will be performed again on Aug. 16.