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Uneven Arabella Strong Enough to Satisfy

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/12/1998 -  and 15*, 18, 24, 27 September, 1, 4 October 1998
Richard Strauss: Arabella
Janice Watson (Arabella), Franz Grundheber (Mandryka), Mary Mills (Zdenka), Donald McIntyre (Count Theodor Waldner), Judith Forst (Countess Adelaide), David Kuebler (Matteo), Laura Claycomb (Fiakermilli), Catherine Cook (Fortuneteller), Stuart Skelton (Count Elemer), Frederick Matthews (Welko), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Count Dominik), John Autry (Count Lamoral), Daniel Harper (Djura), David Kekuewa (Junkel), Jere Torkelsen (Waiter)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra an Chorus, Donald Runnicles (conductor)
David Edwards (director)

For only the second time in its history, the San Francisco Opera produced Richard Strauss’s Arabella in its current season. Last time, it was an opportunity to offer Kiri Te Kanawa in the title role and that production was borrowed from the Houston Grand Opera. This time around, Janice Watson sang the title role in a production borrowed from Covent Garden. Watson’s radiant performance was reason enough to revive Arabella and San Francisco Opera’s Music Director, Donald Runnicles' conducting provided additional riches with a richly nuanced reading and lush, elegant playing from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Watson’s Arabella metamorphosis from a capricious, dreamy girl into a noble, matured woman transformed by genuine love was moving and convincing. Watson's voice has the kind of shimmering vibrato and soaring bloom that suit it to the role and Strauss's vocal writing beautifully. Not as rich and warm as some exponents of the role, her cool silvery voice compliments the youthful aspects of the role without shorting the role's depth. Her acting was affecting and touching, her relationships with her parents, her sister, her suitors and her great love all well detailed and delineated. Her Mandryka, Franz Grundheber, in his San Francisco Opera debut, was less satisfying. Grundheber has a disconcerting habit of cocking his head to one side at times and singing into his coat lapels, giving his character a devious quality unsuitable as Mandryka. The lower and middle portions of the voice lack heft and warmth, but the top opens nicely and carries well. Ultimately, this Mandryka seemed unworthy of Arabella's noble, forgiving love and made one think she had perhaps not chosen so wisely. Arabella's sister, Zdenka, was played by Mary Mills in a performance refreshingly free of mannered poses. Mills took her cue from her mother's comment that she had been such a tomboy ("wie ein Bub") and plays the role as a girl delighting in getting to act like a boy rather than trying to really "be" a boy. Her growing awareness of her own femininity and attraction to Matteo created a nice tension and interest in the character. Mills sounded completely at ease with Strauss's vocal writing, her voice blending nicely with Watson's in the Act I duet. Judith Forst may not be the last word in vocal refinement, but she never gives anything less than her best and provided a touching portrait as Adelaide. With her careful attention to textual detail and convincing stage presence Forst gave depth and honesty to a role easily demeaned. Forst also deserves the good sport award of the season for tolerating a second act costume inappropriate to both character and period. A nightmare in purple and pink chiffon with floral garland trim, Forst would have been well advised to take a lesson from Beverly Sills and insist on one more suitable, cutting this one in half if necessary. Finally making his company debut, Donald McIntyre provided a richly detailed, touchingly human portrayal as Count Waldner. His voice may not have the same plush fullness as it used too, but in its place is the ability to use his vocal resources and stage experience that have their own rewards. David Kuebler's Matteo steers dangerously close to obsessive over his blind infatuation with Arabella, but he manages to avoid crossing the line and in so doing, gives his character a drive and strength that prevent Matteo from becoming a wimpy sap. Kuebler's brightly focused, ringing tenor added to the character's strength and he sang with tireless energy. Laura Claycomb's Fiakermilli was a lively, spirited presence in the second act, but her coloratura lacked the pinpoint accuracy and effortless abandon to make it really distinguished.

Also making a company debut, stage director David Edwards wisely trusted his principals to create the drama, providing them with a mostly unobtrusively framework within which to let the story unfold. But the real dramatic impetus and sweep came from the company's music director, Donald Runnicles on the podium. Runnicles many strengths include a mastery of the balance between dramatic urgency and responsive, expansive phrasing, the ability to elicit a rich, sumptuous tone from the orchestra, and his wide-ranging interpretive powers. If occasionally he overpowered his singers, the loss was negligible and rare. Peter Rice's production captures the faded elegance of the milieu in which the Waldner family is situated, but the lack of attention to detail became more than a distraction. Bad enough was the crooked chandelier in Act II, but the architectural gaff in the third act scene should never have been allowed on stage. The upstage wall showed two levels, the upper including doors leading into the apartment occupied by the Waldner family and clearly an interior wall. But on the lower level, the same wall was filled with French doors opening out onto an exterior garden complete with greenery and, at the opera's conclusion, the morning sunshine streaming in.

While this production of Arabella may not erase memories of the company's earlier production, it did provide local audiences with a notable performance by Watson in the title role, several strong supporting performances and the opportunity to enjoy Runnicles powerful presence at the helm.

Kelly Snyder



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