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Indiana University Opera Theater: Richard Strauss' Arabella

The IU Opera Theater is presenting Richard Strauss's "Arabella" in a production conducted by guest Klauspeter Seibel with stage direction by Vincent Liotta and sets and costumes by Robert O'Hearn.

"Arabella" is a strange piece of opera story telling. It combines a love story of such ethereal elevation that it's hard to believe with a setting and a series of sub plots that are practically contemptible. The music is as colorful as any of Richard Strauss's tone poems and it takes singers from casual conversation to dramatic heights and back in just a breath or two.

Arabella is the daughter of a down at the heels upper class family that has been and is being ruined by the father's addiction to gambling. The family is pinning their financial hopes on a rich match for her. Arabella has a marriageable younger sister, Zdenka, but the family can afford to put only one daughter out for display. Zdenka is dressed as a boy. Arabella does attract a series of at least financially suitable suitors, but is holding out for the right man. He almost magically appears in the person of Mandryka, a wealthy idealistic, country-pure young man. The two are immediately smitten and with vows that resemble monastic commitment pledge their love.

Now to the sub plots…well:. There's the mother and father's total willingness to put Arabella up for marriage to, if not the highest bidder, at least the one of the highest that she finds least objectionable. Then, there's the father's gambling that's almost treated as a comic turn. There's the trouser clad Zdenka who pulls a sort of Biblical bait and switch on the tenor Lieutenant Matteo. Finally, though it's just a sub part of the main plot…there's Mandryka's overweening pride in his belief in Arabella and just how brittly fragile it shows itself to be.

"Arabella" premiered in 1932 with the Weimar Republic in tatters, depression-following inflation totally out of control and Hitler just a year away. It's easy to see why Richard Strauss set his story in 1860, but even from that distance it's a dark sort of comedy with music that often ranges to nervous highs and even in relatively cheerful moments has an air of menace.

Just a brief personal note, I saw "Arabella" right after seeing the Metropolitan Opera's live HD presentation of "Eugene Onegin" on a theater screen in Indianapolis. As we drove back to Bloomington through the sleet and snow, I was worrying about two things. First, or course, was whether we would be spending the evening in the Musical Arts Center or in an icy ditch along route 37. Second though was, would the experience of coming directly from seeing Renee Fleming and Dimitri Hvorostovsky, two internationally acclaimed artists, in a production at one of the world's premiere opera houses totally overshadow IU's efforts.

I'm happy to be able to say, No!. Yes, the voices at the Met were bigger, the orchestra more neatly under those voices and the overall production smoother and more accomplished, but IU's "Arabella" didn't suffer in comparison. It offered an attractive cast of accomplished singer actors and a fine orchestra in a well thought out production that was skillfully mounted and admirably conducted. Like the Metropolitan Opera's afternoon performance, Saturday night's was good opera.

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