In the tumultuous world of opera, an historically fevered realm where composers and librettists have routinely found themselves at odds, eternal Romanticist Richard Strauss and intellectually restless librettist, poet/playwright Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, were a model of collaboration. Artistically counterpointed, temperamentally opposed, the pair’s remarkable symbiotic alliance, though not always devoid of tension, endured for over two decades resulting in six visionary early 20th century operas. Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die ägyptische Helena, Arabella. Expressionism to mythology, abstraction to parody, Strauss and Hofmannsthal confounded and delighted, venturing deep into fresh, essentially unexplored territory with each new project.
Then suddenly nothing was as it had been. On July 13, 1929, Hofmannsthal’s eldest son committed suicide. Two days later, as he was about to leave for the funeral, Hofmannsthal suffered a fatal stroke.
Strauss was devastated. What was to be he and his partner’s last genre-expanding enterprise was set aside, a biting comedy of manners dripping with satire. It would be nearly two years before the composer found the strength to bring their ultimate undertaking to some semblance of completion. Arabella premiered in Dresden, libretto still in need of polish, Acts II and III — first drafts by Strauss — forever awaiting Hofmannsthal’s final inspired touch. The composer would permit no further revisions.
Writing to Hofmannsthal’s widow, Gerty, Strauss struggled to express the depth of his grief.
Posterity will raise a monument worthy of him, one that I have fashioned in my heart — boundless gratitude for a most perfect bosom friend, this will be the feeling I will treasure to the very end of my life.
Opening its 2017 Fall season with a timeless tribute to love, loss and longing, the Canadian Opera Company raises the curtain on a stylish, elegant Arabella, as sensitive as it is alluring. A co-production of Santa Fe Opera and Minnesota Opera first presented in 2012, originating director Tim Albery approaches this uniquely problematic piece with great mindfulness, leaving behind only the faintest trail of self-revealing fingerprints. Music, character and text are left to fizz and bubble like champagne. A deceptively frivolous imbroglio is carefully uncorked.
The fortune teller is adamant. Countess Waldner’s family is to be delivered from financial disaster, a consequence of her husband’s ruinous gambling. Eldest daughter, Arabella, will meet a wealthy outsider whom she will marry. The Waldner’s coffers will be refilled if Arabella is able to avoid an unmistakable portent of trouble. Younger daughter Zdenka, who has long since resigned herself to her decidedly unglamorous lot in life warding off her family’s creditors is not encouraged. Her boyish disguise as household footman will not, she thinks, soon be shed. A young woman is such a drain on a family’s resources, her mother has determined. The gowns. The glittery galas. No one in Vienna beyond the Waldner’s sombre hotel suite need ever know their secret.
Layer by layer the plot thickens into a mass of complications. A wealthy stranger from the provinces, Mandryka, arrives, intent on wooing Arabella, his passion aroused by a portrait her father has enclosed in a letter of woe to Mandryka’s uncle, a former crony from the Count’s military days. It is love at first sight. Or rather second. The handsome young landowner has already caught Arabella’s eye on a stroll about town a short time earlier.
Later that evening, all attend a lavish ball. Arabella and Mandryka draw closer. Mandryka is exultant, encouraged by Arabella’s show of interest. Cash may not buy class in status-obsessed Vienna but it does buy champagne for everyone and armfuls of flowers. Arabella brusquely dismisses a persistent trio of admirers that is forever flocking around her.
A fourth suitor, Matteo, is not so easily discouraged. Determined to preserve his daily visits, a madly infatuated Zdenka has sent him a forged love note from Arabella professing unbridled affection. Zdenka capitalizes on Matteo’s ardour, tricking him into thinking Arabella will meet him in her room. But it is Zdenka who awaits Matteo, the latter oblivious to the ruse, for a night of ecstasy in the dark.
Misinterpreting a series of vague clues the following morning, Mandryka breaks off his courtship, convinced Arabella has betrayed him. Arabella is outraged. Zdenka enters déshabillé. All is revealed. Forgiveness reigns. Arabella and Mandryka reaffirm their bond. Matteo is touched by Zdenka’s devotion. A double wedding is contemplated.
The question of dramatic intention fills the spaces between the lines. Living and working in the ominous shadow of the National Socialists in the late 1920s brought with it a certain grim acceptance and simultaneous turning away from reality on the part of Arabella’s creators. Whereas Strauss initially hoped to fashion something of a sequel to the pair’s earlier, hugely successful neo-operetta, Rosenkavalier, Hofmannsthal’s first impulse was to confront the present by paradoxically appropriating the past. Set against a burnished 19th century backdrop, the glorious, gleaming Vienna of the Habsburgs, Arabella, a morality play for an amoral age, would reflect a desperate yearning for innocence while plumbing the dark side of pre-World War II German reality.
Sharp flashes of psychosocial pathology illuminate great swaths of Arabella. Zdenka is a virtual Freudian case study in repressed identity. Arabella is woman as object, a commodity to be invested, a dividend to be reaped. Count Waldner is a destructive adrenaline addict; Matteo, a high-strung chronic depressive; Mandryka, a monument to masculine insecurity. Skewed values and neuroses swirl through the story.
In spite of its edgy mindset or more plausibly because of it, Arabella is, above all else, thoroughly, compulsively, rebelliously alive. Happy endings to the opera’s various interlaced subplots may be less than emphatic but catharsis most certainly lands centre stage. Hofmannsthal had a word for the condition. Verwandlung — transformation. The instant when past and present pour into the future. When consciences are awakened. When we declare our humanity.
The philosophy, albeit only partially proclaimed in Arabella, may very well have taken firmer root had Hofmannsthal lived to set his precept solidly in place. Director Albery fills in at least some of the blanks, thoughtfully guiding and recontextualizing story.
Time frame is shifted from Arabella’s original 1860s setting to the eve of World War I, a golden age of lavish aristocratic privilege and excess destined to be blown away by the apocalypse to come. When Arabella pleads with Mandryka for a moment to enjoy herself, Ich möchte tanzen noch, und Abschied nehmen von meiner Mädchenzeit (“I want to dance a while, and take leave of my youth”), she is speaking for an entire generation that would soon be no more. It is a touching comment made deeply resonant by Albery’s subtle amendment, an abiding tone of bitter sweetness that underlies virtually every scene.
There are precious few oversized laughs in Arabella. Strauss/Hofmannsthal’s incipient comedy feels targeted to strike at the heart more than the funny bone. Albery consistently succeeds in maintaining a fine balance, humour vs drama, unleashing physicality and farce only at pivotal moments of narrative chaos. The result yields a kind of theatrical tremulousness, ideal counterpoint to Arabella’s overtly lyrical score.
Strauss’s music is exquisitely affecting, a clear, straightforward assemblage of notes, crisp and unadorned, superbly suited to the human voice particularly that of a soprano, a Fach that held lifelong appeal for the composer and one that he repeatedly showcased. Writing in a taut expressive style sprinkled with Wagnerian leitmotifs, though more infrequently and loosely applied than his operatic idol, Strauss developed a characteristic flowing, parlando-inflected style, raising recit and arioso to new heights in Arabella.
Leading an impressively expansive Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, conductor Patrick Lange paints a vivid modernist canvas accented by splashy waltzes and folk tunes, colourful Arabella-specific accents. Strauss’s animated introduction to Act III, highly charged and erotic punctuated by percussion and brass, is played with splendid élan. The music making throughout the evening is magnificent.
Reprising her title role from Santa Fe, soprano Erin Wall invests her Arabella with enormous grace and sensibility, pragmatic and idealistic in almost equal measure, a dreamer with a weary heart. Singing with a glowing warmth of tone and luxurious legato, Wall flies her voice to the very centre of our affections. Aber der Richtige – wenn’s einen gibt für mich auf dieser (“But if the right man comes along — if there is a right one for me”), Arabella proclaims, bravely trusting that true love will one day find her. Wall utterly captivates.
Jane Archibald, appearing as Zdenka, brings boundless energy to her character, a complex young woman, accepting by necessity, vital and sexually precocious by nature. A bright soprano leggero, more pastel in tone than Wall’s bold colouring, Archibald instantly commands attention with a frantic, wildly emotional rendition of Sie wollen alle Geld! (“They want all the money!”) in her first appearance in Act I. Her partnering with Wall a short time later yields an extended duet of soaring beauty. Curtain to curtain, the zest and sparkle in this voice never fade.
A vibrant Straussian declaration of love’s power to enchant, Sie wollen mich heirathen (“They want to marry me”), headlines Act II, thrillingly embodied by Wall and suave Arabella baritone Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka. His is an instrument with considerable ping, dynamic and seductive. Accompanied by dashing manners and solid dramatic instincts, Konieczny’s presence provides Albery’s gender insightful production with a resounding chord of masculine bravado tinted with vulnerability.
Singing the part of Matteo, tenor Michael Brandenburg inhabits the bumbling young cavalry officer body and soul, charging headlong into a morass of misunderstanding. Perhaps it is the clarity of his phrasing, the honesty of his technique or something more insubstantial — stage chemistry — somehow Brandenburg makes us genuinely care for poor witless Matteo. A fine, well-crafted performance.
Soprano Claire de Sévigné is The Fiakermilli, a flirty, whip-cracking party girl with relentless red hot coloratura to match. Baritone John Fanning contributes an exceptionally well-observed turn as Arabella’s father, Count Waldner. Mezzo-soprano Gundula Hintz is Arabella’s mother, Adelaide, perpetually overwhelmed. Tenor Cory Bix is a raffish Elemer, baritones Craig Irvin and Bruno Roy are fellow suitors Dominik and Lamoral. Megan Katham is the Fortune Teller.
Arabella is a tragic comic opera, not so much because of what it is but rather because of why it is and what it might have been. The promise of greatness is all there. Even in its incompleteness, the work still stirs us.
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Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy Canadian Opera Company.