If Minnesota Opera seldom ventures into the German repertory — the company has taken no notice of Richard Wagner’s bicentennial — the reason is not lack of capacity. Witness the assured, deftly traditional staging of Richard Strauss’ nostalgic comedy “Arabella” (1929-32) that opened Saturday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. Shared with Santa Fe Opera, the production, more intimate than most, showcases the voices, skirts sentimentality and argues strongly for Strauss’ signature lyricism, which can sound recycled.
Premiered in the early days of the Third Reich, “Arabella” — a fluffy, sometimes farcical tale, set in 1860’s Vienna, of the aristocratic but impecunious Waldner family that ends with a double betrothal — was the sixth and last collaboration between Strauss and the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose psychologically probing libretti are masterpieces of the genre.
The work was a self-conscious attempt to recapture the ethos (and income) of “Der Rosenkavalier,” the pair’s fizzy 1911 hit. But when Hofmannsthal died, just days after sending Strauss a draft of the last two acts of “Arabella,” the composer, in homage to his partner, resolved to set nearly every syllable of the unrevised draft to music, resulting in a longish sit. Minnesota Opera has made judicious cuts throughout.
Soprano Jacquelyn Wagner is luminous as Arabella. Alive to both the frivolousness and the authenticity of her character, she conjures a true Strauss heroine: keenly sensitive, half-ecstatic, questing. Her range of vocal color is wide; she has a gift for understatement. Saturday’s audience quickly fell under her spell.
Mandryka, Arabella’s slightly rustic, slightly crazed “Mr. Right,” may be the most intriguing male in Strauss’s whole soprano-centric operatic output; he breathes his own air, as the smitten Arabella puts it. This sets the bar high, and baritone Craig Irvin, though not without charisma, doesn’t always clear it. But he’s marvelous in the final scene, stage-managed by Arabella — one of the opera’s goose-bump moments.
Elizabeth Futral is a passionate Zdenka, her voice intertwining sublimely with Wagner’s; she’s undaunted by the gender complexities of her role or by the unstylish, ill-fitting duds in which Tobias Hoheisel purposefully clothes her. Brian Jagde’s strapping Matteo is the very model of tenorial ardor; his instrument could fill several Ordways. Dale Travis, coiffed by Jason Allen to resemble Brahms, excels as Waldner, his German particularly flavorful. Victoria Vargas (an emotive Adelaide), John Robert Lindsey (a clueless Elemer) and Jamie-Rose Guarrine (an alluring Fiakermilli) sing with distinction.
Tim Albery directs with a light touch; Hoheisel’s set is spare and ingenious. Under music director Michael Christie’s supple baton, the orchestra, packed sardine-like into the Ordway pit, responds superbly to Strauss’ sophisticated score. The horns are heroic; Allison Ostrander’s violin is especially eloquent.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.