Met's 'Arabella': to get to know her is to love her

Richard Strauss's ''Arabella'' is, as with all of the composer's late operas, an acquired taste, but the only way to acquire that taste is to get to know the work very, very well.

The 1933 opera has not gained a strong foothold in the repertoire of US opera houses. The US premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera only in 1955 with Eleanor Steber. Lisa Della Casa took over the role in subsequent seasons. Now the Met has taken a new look at the opera in a gorgeous production designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and directed by Otto Schenk. The production stars the quintessential Arabella of our day, the New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, and Bernd Weikl as Mandryka. Erich Leinsdorf conducts.

The opera proved to be the final collaboration between the composer and his favorite librettist, the celebrated author-playwright Hugo von Hoffmann-sthal. Like ''Der Rosenkavalier,'' their first complete collaboration, ''Arabella'' takes place in Vienna, though a century later in an era when nobility was more ostentatious and less solvent.

The libretto is not as handsomely crafted as its glorious predecessor, because the librettist had passed on just after its completion and Strauss was deprived of the process of fine tuning he and Hoffmannsthal usually undertook.

What remains is a two-thirds beautiful opera and a one-third problem piece. When the plot is dealing with Arabella, her suitors, and Mandryka (the man she knows on first sight she will marry), we are in vintage territory. When she leaves and the parents or Mandryka are on stage alone, troubles set in.

When the curtain goes up, we discover the boy Zdenko, who is in fact Arabella's sister forced into trousers because the Waldner family cannot afford to bring two girls out into Vienna society. By the time Zdenka reveals her true identity, several compromising confusions have reached near-catastrophic dimensions, but all are resolved to everyone's satisfaction, leaving the stage for a final scene wherein Arabella betroths herself to the man of her dreams, Mandryka.

If ''Arabella'' is not populated with believable, natural people, the opera falls apart. The soprano singing Arabella must be of exceptional beauty and grace. The baritone portraying Mandryka must convince us that he is a country gentleman ill at ease in the scheming socialite whirl of mid-19th-century Vienna. Also important: that it is believable that Zdenka can fool the world in her masquerade as Arabella's young page boy.

The Met production does it all. The Schneider-Siemssen sets capture the claustrophobic mood of the Waldner's resident-hotel drawing room. The gaudy opulence of the public ballroom entrance is breathtaking, and the final scene allows Arabella a most gracious descent down the staircase. Mr. Schenk's direction is rich in detail, and every one of the chorus members and secondary performers offer distinct characterizations.

But ''Arabella'' rises and falls on the strengths of its heroine. Miss Te Kanawa possesses all the physical attributes to be ideal in this role. She is a lady of uncommon grace, of bearing, of radiant beauty, and possessor of one of the most gorgeous, limpid voices on the opera stage today. Listening to her sing is like watching a smooth thick cream pour from a pitcher - evenly, without lumps, richly, caressingly. As if that were not enough, she acts with conviction , temperament, and tremendous poise. Her descent down the staircase to give Mandryka the traditional glass of water to mark their betrothal is one of the most beautiful moments in recent operatic history.

Secondary honors go to Kathleen Battle as Zdenka. Each new Met assignment finds her growing in strength vocally and histrionically. She deftly delineates her character's inner confusions and her soubrette-lyric soprano blossoms wonderfully well, blending hauntingly with Miss Te Kanawa's in the celebrated duet ''Aber der Richtige'' in the first act. Bernd Weikl's Mandryka was impressively sung, expertly acted - believable in his confusion at all that is going on around him, perhaps a bit too bumptious here and there, but always a figure of rustic dignity.

Mignon Dunn and Donald Gramm performed the roles of the Waldners well. Unfortunately, in this cast of singers who looked their part, David Rendall's Matteo - over-ample of frame and awkward of stage deportment - rendered the subplot with the dashing young officer ludicrous. His singing was in no way up to the rest of the cast.

In the pit, Mr. Leinsdorf unfolded an account of the score that refused to dawdle over the more delicious phrases or luxuriate excessively in textures. Balances were constantly clean, the music never lapsed into the mawkishness that a too-free-wheeling account can produce. At the third performance, however, the dynamics were rather too loud to accommodate Miss Te Kanawa, who was just getting over an indisposition that found her slightly cautious of voice throughout the first two acts. Applause for Arrau

Claudio Arrau, the noted Chilean pianist who now resides in the New York area , celebrated his 80th birthday in Avery Fisher Hall Feb. 20, a few weeks after the fact. His program included pieces he has contemplated most of his life - two Beethoven sonatas (''Waldstein'' and ''Appassionata''), a Debussy ''Image'' (''Reflets dans l'eau''), a Liszt ''Ballade'' and his ''Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este,'' and Chopin's First Scherzo.

Mr. Arrau gave the ''Waldstein'' one of those rare readings wherein every detail had shading, mood, and meaning. He unfolded the music with a view to the meaning behind the notes. The vistas of this ''Waldstein'' and, for that matter, the ''Appassionata,'' were of a sort too rarely encountered in a concert hall.

His facility with runs, the limpid control of dynamics, the sheerly beautiful sounds he coaxes out of his instrument were marvelous to hear in Beethoven. In Liszt and Debussy, they were extraordinary. Arrau suffused ''Jeux d'eaux'' with a wistful sadness, gave us Debussy full of mood and atmosphere, and a ''Ballade'' full of poetry and drama. He concluded with a reading of the Chopin scherzo high on elegance and understatement, and a remarkable array of superb runs and technical derring-do.

The afternoon was punctuated with presentations of the Beethoven Society medal to the pianist, the reading of a letter from New York Mayor Edwin Koch, and a telegram of congratulation from President and Mrs. Reagan (which was roundly booed by an ill-mannered segment of this rather noisy audience). At program's end, a birthday cake was wheeled out by Placido Domingo, who sang ''Happy Birthday'' to this superb artist.

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