Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


July 30, 2012

Erin Wall and Mark Delavan Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Santa Fe Opera premiered the fifth and final production of its 2012 summer festival season on Saturday, Strauss’ Arabella. Strauss’ operas have a long history here in Santa Fe, and are as likely to show up as often as those of Mozart or Puccini. In fact this is the company’s fourth production of this particular opera alone in its 56-year history, an unusual marker by any opera company’s measure. Of course, despite this rich history, it has been five years since the company last staged a Strauss opera (2007’s production of Daphne was the last) and the time away from the festival stage showed a bit on Saturday.

Very little happens in Arabella. The title character is a young woman whose potential marriage has become a matter of huge fiscal concern for her broke and precariously perched aristocratic family. A financially fortuitous match is arranged and unexpectedly it turns out to be quite agreeable to her, although some complications ensue, and a glass of water is delivered before everything is said and done. The story is filled with lavish interiors and grand balls and rests heavily on a string of intimate conversations. The passion here is on the inside and comes bubbling out unexpectedly. With such a set up, a restrained staging might seem a good idea, but Tim Albery’s staging is so devoid of spark that no burning desire is about to save it from its quiet cold expiration in the New Mexico desert. The sets and costumes are done almost entirely in shades of gray. At first it seems that this may be one of those tricks used to make color that appears later on pop out at the viewer. But here it’s just gray and more gray for three hours. Even the late Edwardian costumes are oddly filled with fine details that are impossible to see from very far away and sometimes quite ill fitting.

Into this cold, dimly lit world come musicians and actors not entirely capable of breathing fire into what they are given. Soprano Erin Wall sings the lead. She’s likable and attractive, but she lacked the kind of warmth and ability to cut through the orchestra that make for the best proponents of this role. Mark Delavan sang Mandryka and gave a consistent and believable performance going from enamored to maddeningly jealous with real skill. He never bellowed and brought some real emotion to the fragile relationship with the beautiful protagonist. The minor roles included worthwhile performances from Heidi Stober as Zdenka and Zach Borichevsky as Matteo. The orchestra seemed bogged down by the same gray fog that enveloped the stage sadly. After sounding nuanced and lush at the opening of Szymanowski’s King Roger last week, this time there were anemic bits, and Sir Andrew Davis, a noted Strauss specialist, never quite got the opulent sound Strauss’ late works in particular are known for. Luckily, Santa Fe is not known for its gloomy marine layer summer days, so there are some hopes that musically things will pick up as the run continues, but a little life and a little color may be harder to come by in this return to Straussian form in the desert.


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