Monday, November 18, 2013

An Evanescent "Arabella"

The Minnesota Opera performs Strauss gorgeously

German operas are notoriously difficult to make accessible, and the MN Opera does it with such grace in Arabellla that it's difficulty becomes barely perceptible. With a mix of love, jealousy, and a hot dash of passion, Arabella is an opera that any novice can appreciate.

Arabella is the eldest daughter of a noble but poor family (seemingly the story of all of Europen aristocracy in the nineteenth/twentieth centuries - see: Downton Abbey). Her family is so poor, in fact, tht her sister (Zdenka) is dressed as a boy in order to avoid the expense of showing her well and marrying her off. 

Arabella is lovely and courted by many a suitor, but it is not until Mandryka, the nephew of a deceased (and wealthy) family friend, appears and appeals for Arabella's hand that she at last chooses a mate. 

As with all great love stories (and operas), there is an obstacle to the happy union of Arabella and Mandryka. Matteo is one of Arabella's many suitors, one who is desperately unhappy at her refusal of his advances. Matteo is ready to kill himself without Arabella's love, Zdenka is in love with Matteo, and Zdenka's last ditch attempt to find a moment of happiness with him while subsequently diverting him from suicide almost derails Arabella's entire future. 

This is a solid cast and one that seems much more accustomed to acting than many opera players I've seen in the past. Many players find ways to make their characters really pop through the dense German text and score, and it's a delight to watch them interact. 

As Arabella, Jacquelyn Wagner is slow to warm up - but when she hits her stride, watch out. She's particularly strong in Act II, simultaneously funny, strong, harsh, tender, and all around in full control of herself and her situation. It's a pleasure to see such a strong woman in an opera script, and Wagner does it right. 

Even better, and the standout of the cast, is Craig Irvin as Mandryka. Irvin swaggers and swoons across the stage, at times so raw that one wonders if he himself was jilted in the past. He has a lovely voice that is perfectly matched to Wagner, and I'd see the show again just for their moments togehter. 

Bringing an extremely welcome comedic relief is Dale Travis as Arabella's father Count Wagner. Travis can only be described as strutting like a rooster across the stage, and he is bellyachingly funny.

The most interesting aspect of the score is its particular evocation of ecumenical music. Arabella's subject matter isn't churchy at all, but the phrasing consistently feels as if one is listening to a glorious choir in an old stone church. Somehow, this feels fresh, and it's an oddly invigorating twist. 

Standout moments include an sinuously chromatic duet in Act I with Elemer and Matteo, and virtually any interplay between Arabella and Mandryka.  Their voices are perfectly paired, and their emotion is so tender, so raw, and so heart-piercing that it's impossible to witness without emotion. I have a hard time remembering another time when two skillsets were so perfectly paired, and their duets alone are far worth the price of admission. Act II as a whole is wonderful, in fact. Just go see the show!

As always, the set and costumes are lovely - no one does opulence (or in this case, stark opulence) like the Minnesota Opera. 

Anyone with the ability should jump to see Arabella. It's witty, lovely, and an all around crowd pleaser. And for anyone concerned about affordability, the MN Opera offers incredible ticket discounts - a season pass through their sexy young group Tempo allows opportunities to see shows for only $24/ticket. You can learn more by clicking on this link.