Met conductor reveals the pattern in Strauss's patchworked opera

Under Christian Thielemann's baton, phrasing in `Arabella' becomes orderly


Music by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugh von Hofmannsthal. Production by Otto Schenk. Conducted by Christian Thielemann. At the Metropolitan Opera Nov. 3, 7, and 11.

WHEN the young German conductor Christian Thielemann made his debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in Strauss's ``Der Rosenkavalier'' two years ago, it made headlines for the wrong reasons.

During the rehearsal, soprano Kathleen Battle, who was singing the role of Sophie, quit the production in what was described as disagreements with the conductor over tempo. The Met management, ever on Battle-alert, knew not to fault Thielemann for this diva drama, which turned out to be strike two of Battle's final strike out with the Met last spring. Battle was replaced. The performances were a triumph for Thielemann, whose vivid conducting was acclaimed.

Thielemann is back this season conducting Strauss's ``Arabella'' with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa in the title role. Once again Thielemann's work is impressive. He is a skillful technician. Matters of balance and sonority were carefully attended to. He's an alert traffic cop - so important in the opera house where the conductor must coordinate players, singers, and choristers who are often far away from him, and from each other.

Moreover, it's ironic that issues of tempo were purportedly the reason for Battle's displeasure with Thielemann. It is precisely in the realm of tempo - the pacing and shaping of the score - that his work is so distinctive.

Thielemann knows how to make the rhetoric of music clear. As with verbal texts, a musical score is organized into musical phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. A conductor must make audible, without making obvious, where the punctuation falls, where the musical commas, exclamation points, question marks, and paragraph breaks occur. Like prose, music should convey a sense of direction. And if the direction is intentionally confusing, then it has to be projected.

This is a particular problem with ``Arabella,'' an awfully chatty comedy, Strauss's last collaboration with his longtime librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

The story tells of an aristocratic Viennese family in the 1860s that has gone broke due to the compulsive gambling of the family head, Count Waldner. So bad is the situation that the count and his wife have raised their tomboyish younger daughter Zdenka as a boy, girls being far more expensive. Their hopes for solvency lie with their older daughter Arabella, a lovely self-possessed and somewhat stubborn young woman. Arabella believes that when the right man comes along she will know it. So the ploys of her family to get her properly married are pointless.

Naturally, there are various suitors, and a dress ball, and the typical complications - which means there is a lot of chatter in this opera. There are trademark Straussian melodies that spin out in arching beauty. But there's lots of jabbering as well. Yet under-lying the entire score is Strauss's continuously churning music, with its insistent urgings and its complicating squiggles.

In Thielemann's performance, the continuity of the music emerged with almost narrative power. The moments of comic chatter sputtered with energy; the moments of blissful lyricism sounded forth. But Thielemann showed us the pattern in Strauss's patchwork quilt of an opera. You knew where a phrase had come from, and where it was heading.

The Metropolitan Opera orchestra was at its best, playing with luminous sound and incisive rhythm. For all the excitement, however, there was a wonderfully relaxed quality to this performance, born, no doubt, of the players' confidence in their leader.

Te Kanawa was a touching Arabella. Here and there some patchiness crept into her voice. But her sound is still sublime, and she can lift a Straussian phrase with unforced fullness and lyrical grace. She may have been a bit too wordly-wise to play a headstrong young woman. There was too much Marschallin in her Arabella. Yet, Te Kanawa convinced you - and this is not easy to do - that Arabella grows in one evening from impressionable idealist to resigned realist.

Marie McLaughlin was charming as Zdenka. Two great veterans of opera, soprano Helga Dernesch and bass-baritone Donald McIntyre brought artistry and handsome vocalism to the roles of the count and countess. Tenor David Kuebler was an ardent Matteo, the young officer who woos Arabella but winds up, to his utter amazement, with Zdenka. Only baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen was a disappointment in the key role of Mandryka, the wealthy stranger who comes to town and wins Arabella's love, though not before doubting her and acting like an oaf. Ketelsen's singing was labored and inexact.

But the big news was Thielemann. Not since the late Karl Boehm, who was guided through this score by Strauss himself, has a conductor made ``Arabella'' sound like more than an irresistible cream puff. Having found him, let's hope the Met brings him back often.

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