Arts & Events

ARABELLA: Richard Strauss Revisits Vienna

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday November 01, 2018 - 11:51:00 AM

In 1933, twenty-three years after the 1910 premiere of Der Rosenkavalier in Dresden, Richard Strauss premiered Arabella in Dresden. Their Dresden beginnings notwithstanding, Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella are quintessentially Viennese operas. Both are set in Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, and Arabella, at least in its original conception, in the 1860s, though for this San Francisco Opera production Director Tim Albery has updated Arabella to 1910, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Both operas examine Viennese society with a jaundiced, though affectionate, eye. 

In Arabella, there is no orchestral prelude, and the curtain opens on a salon in Vienna, where the aristocratic but penniless Waldners worry aloud about their financial straits. Count Waldner laments that he continually loses at gambling. Countess Adelaide Waldner is having her fortune read by a fortune-teller, while Arabella’s sister, Zdenka, dressed as a boy, fends off creditors. Zdenka, we learn, has been brought up to pass as a boy, Zdenko, for the simple reason that the Waldners’ meager finances cannot allow them to spend money on “coming-out parties” for two daughters nearly the same age. So they have concentrated their attentions on the hope of finding a rich husband for Arabella.  

Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens is a credulous Countess Adelaide, and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove is a crafty fortune-teller. The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl effectively sends up the aristocrats’ reliance on fortune-tellers. Meanwhile, Zdenko (the ‘boy’) reassures Matteo, a young officer, that Arabella truly cares for him. Matteo, you see, is desperately smitten with Arabella. However, Zdenka (the ‘girl’) secretly harbors her own affection for Matteo, and she worries he might even kill himself if Arabella shuns him. Matteo is sung by tenor Daniel Johansson, and Zdenka is sung by soprano Heidi Stober.  

Arabella now enters, elegantly sung by soprano Ellie Dehn. Arabella has received gifts from three suitors plus Matteo; but she finds none of her suitors attractive as a future husband. She tells Zdenka she will know “the right one,”)”der Richtige”) if and when he comes along. Then the two sisters join in a charming duet that has echoes of the Octavian/Marschallin duet from Act I of Der Rosenkavalier. In this duet the voices of Heidi Stober and Ellie Dehn blended beautifully.  

Arabella’s three aristocratic suitors are Count Elemer, sung here by tenor Scott Quinn, Count Dominik, sung by baritone Andrew Manea, and Count Lamoral, sung by bass-baritone Christian Pursell. Arabella’s father, sung here by baritone Richard Paul Fink, urges Arabella to choose one of her suitors as her future husband before the night is out. But Arabella has caught sight of an impressive-looking stranger from her window, and wonders who he is. This stranger, it turns out, is the nephew of an old military friend of Count Waldner’s. The destitute Count had even sent his old friend a photograph of Arabella, hoping to entice him to consider marrying her. But the uncle of the present stranger has died, and the photo has come into the possession of Mandryka, his nephew. And sure enough, the photo has done its work. Mandryka has come all the way from his vast forests in Croatia to seek the hand of Arabella. Fabulously wealthy, Mandryka offers the impoverished Count Waldner to “help yourself” to a handful of thousand-gülden notes. Count Waldner can’t believe his good luck!  

Mandryka is sung here by baritone Brian Mulligan, who was quite impressive in this role. Mulligan is a large, barrel-chested fellow, and his stentorian voice is, as Opera News put it, “a rugged, perfectly articulated baritone.” Dramatically, Brian Mulligan fits the part to a T: we believe this impetuous Mandryka has traveled all this way to seek a wife on the basis of a photograph. When Mandryka and Arabella meet, she seems to sense immediately that he’s “the right one.” But there is still the matter of the Coachmen’s Ball, and Arabella, though Queen of the Ball, has to inform each of her three local suitors that she gracefully declines their suit. When it is announced that she will be engaged to Mandryka, young Matteo is beside himself with grief. Once again, Zdenka, fearing her Matteo will do something rash, slips Matteo the key to Arabella’s room and says Arabella wants him to come to her later that night. Mandryka overhears this conversation and becomes suspicious. Fueled with champagne at the ball, and fueled as well by flirtations with the Fiakermilli, Mandryka flies into a rage of jealousy and betrayal. The Fiakermilli was sung by stratospheric soprano Hye Jung Lee. Meanwhile, Arabella has left the ball and headed home. Her parents, aghast at Mandryka’s accusations, invite him to accompany them home to verify Arabella’s innocence.  

Meanwhile, Zdenka has awaited Matteo in Arabella’s darkened room, and Matteo, thinking she is Arabella, has enjoyed everything he‘d ever dreamed of. But when he exits Arabella’s room, goes downstairs and finds Arabella in the lobby still dressed for the ball, he is nonplussed. Mandryka and Arabella’s parents now arrive, and Mandryka points out Matteo as the one to whom the key was given. Only when Zdenka exits Arabella’s room wearing only a nightshift does it become clear what has transpired. Arabella forgives her sister, a confused Matteo forgives Zdenka, and Arabella movingly forgives Mandryka. Presumably, everyone lives happily ever after in this admittedly schmaltzy but beautiful opera. Mark Albrecht led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a fine, well-paced rendition of Strauss’s score. Production Designer was Tobias Hoheisel, and Lighting Director was David Finn. 

Arabella will receive one final performance on Saturday, November 3, at 7:30.