As Arizona Opera opened its three-day Phoenix run for an operetta titled Arizona Lady at Symphony Hall on Friday night, the audience was clearly excited by the prospect of hearing a story set in the Southwest. Simply the sight of the set, complete with cactus and a distant mesa, was enough to draw applause.
Set in 1925 Tucson, Arizona Lady was written in 1953 by composer Emmerich Kálmán, who hailed from Austria-Hungary and fled to America during Hitler’s rule. Smitten by the Southwest, he penned the operetta in German as a love letter to the land he clearly romanticized. The libretto (text) was written by Alfred Grunwäld and Gustav Beer. Arizona Opera was the first major U.S. opera house to perform the work.
The title refers to a horse belonging to a woman who inherited her father’s ranch, along with his debt. She hopes betting on her prize filly Arizona Lady at the Tucson Rodeo will help to save the day —- a plan that’s complicated by her decision to fire the rider ahead of the race, plus the presence of too many suitors and a horse thief. For modern audiences, it’s simply not that gripping a tale.
Arizona Opera set high expectations for Arizona Lady, which it performed first in Tucson — on October 10 and 11. It's one of two 2015/16 productions included in the company's multi-year Arizona Bold initiative, which was designed to “bring new and exciting stories to Arizona, featuring relevant and intimately familiar tales.” But instead of bold, they delivered boring.
There’s little about Arizona Lady that reflects the depth and breadth of Arizona’s history and culture. And there’s a good chance that those lured into their first opera experience by the title won’t be back for more — because although this production was accessible, it wasn’t particularly engaging. Even its talented cast, directed by Matthew Ozawa, couldn't make what's basically a collection of pleasant melodies feel relevant or revelatory.
This production of Arizona Lady was adapted and translated from German to English by conductor Kathleen Kelly, with Spanish translation by Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Rios. Most parts, whether spoken or sung, were performed in English. Only smatterings of German remained, and the Spanish was nearly as sparse. Still, the English supertitles projected over the stage were badly needed given the difficulty of hearing many of the vocal performances over the booming orchestra.
Arizona Lady is filled with references to the wide open land and sky, and the freedom Kálmán felt it signified. But that’s well-trodden territory at this point, given endless iterations through the years of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, a musical that premièred on Broadway in 1943 but still finds it way to local stages.
Still, there was an endearing bit of nostalgia at play in Arizona Lady — due in large measure to scenic design by Mark Halpin that included several horses with a vintage-carousel look, as well as lighting designed by Douglas Provost and costumes designed by Kathleen Trott. Vaudevillian elements such as a rope of lights framing much of the stage lent a charming old-timey feel, but looks weren’t enough to overcome the operetta's plodding plot.
This production's novelty factor, comprising rope tricks plus easy laugh lines with an Arizona twist, made it moderately amusing. But referencing Sheriff Joe Arpaio's pink underwear for inmates edict, or giving racehorses names like Wildcat and Sparky rooted in Arizona college sports, only served to highlight the operetta's comedic shortcomings — especially compared to other works, such as Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, previously performed by Arizona Opera.
So although some will applaud Arizona Opera's decision to bet on Arizona Lady, we're not convinced it was a wise wager.
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