Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Love for Sale: Strauss's Arabella at Santa Fe Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

After an absence of five years, the Santa Fe Opera has mounted a work by Richard Strauss, once the annual practice of founder John Crosby. The infrequently performed Arabella is enjoying a fine new production with a solid cast under the direction of Tim Albery. Sir Andrew Davis helms a robust and glowing orchestra, with Susanne Sheston’s chorus meeting the season’s usual high standards.

Arabella is a wise opera, wiser even (speaking now of its libretto) than Der Rosenkavalier, on which it was modeled. Two decades after that ode to an idealized 18th Century had become a blockbuster hit for Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the two were hoping operatic lightening might strike twice. But much water had passed under Europe’s historic bridges. The collapse of the Austro-German monarchies and steep war reparations after 1918 proved disastrous for their citizens. By Arabella‘s Dresden premiere on 1 July 1933, the Third Reich had already seized power.

Under such circumstances, dangling another bauble in the manner of Rosenkavalier would hardly have impressed jaded audiences. It was Hofmannsthal who found a way to have their comedic cake and eat its bitterness too. He set Arabella in the Vienna of the mid 19th Century Gr├╝nderzeit (the Epoch of the Founders), a time of ostentation and show. Also a time of speculation and dissipated fortunes, where losers played a desperate game of catch up.

Von Hofmannsthal’s sudden and unexpected death in 1929 prevented his final touches to the libretto. Strauss received a completed Act I, but only late drafts of Acts II and III. Talky, in the manner of comedies, the libretto was full of incident and personal reflections. The composer set it as he received it, and his music seems to play a conscious second fiddle to the drama. Perhaps Strauss wanted his irreplaceable partner to take, in absentia, one last bow in the limelight.

Hofmannsthal’s Arabella is a coming-of-age story that takes place in one remarkable day, in one unremarkable hotel, where romance and fortune hunting will change lives. The aristocratic Waldner family is down on its luck. In desperation, the Count visits gaming tables but is always fleeced. His ditzy but good-hearted wife, Adelaide, seeks out fortune-tellers. Blessed with two fine daughters, the parents place hopes of financial rescue on the older Arabella making a good marriage. Levelheaded and compliant, their daughter is prepared to accomplish this but none of her current suitors seem right. Her younger sister, Zdenka, faces dimmer prospects. She has been raised as a boy because the cost of presenting a second young lady to society is beyond her family’s means.

Tobias Hoheisel’s traditional-period sets are grey-colored and curvilinear, rotating from the Waldner family’s quarters of unadorned walls (befitting their advanced state of pawning assets), to the entrance of the ballroom, and finally into the hotel’s lobby. What the sets plainly depict, David Finn’s subtle lighting animates. Albery’s stage direction keeps the action moving organically and unobtrusively.  Hoheisel's costumes are as elegant and understated as his sets.

Arabella’s journey to maturation is critical to the story. In the span of a single day she transforms from a manipulative coquette with three dangling suitors into a serious young woman who longs for just one special man. Canadian Erin Wall made an attractive Arabella, her lyric soprano floating gorgeously as she mused, “… if there is a man right for me in this world, he will stand before me one day… and there will be no doubts.” While lovely in lyric moments, Wall’s voice occasionally tightened in the extended ranges of more highly charged repartee. Convincing as the mature Arabella, Wall’s earlier flirtatious interactions lacked only a certain relish and flare.

There was no lack of relish in Mark Delavan’s Mandryka, who commanded the action from his first entrance. A burly bear of a man with boundless energy, he was tailor-made for the role of the Croatian country squire with wads of money, who instantly falls for Arabella based on her portrait and is in turn loved by her at first glance. His blustering, if mistaken, anger makes for a terrific musical dust-up later on. More often seen in Wagnerian roles or as Puccini heavies, Delevan tore up the stage in the sheer delight of being that rare baritone who gets to play it sincere and in the end also keeps the girl who signifies her love with a glass of water.

Heidi Stober’s Zdenka delivered a sparkling performance. Her youthful, bright soprano radiated the ardor and nervous energy of a severely stressed young lady who must keep her gender identity a secret as she dutifully assists the man she loves, even in his ill-matched pursuit of her sister. Stober’s beguiling vulnerability in various dilemmas was perfectly gauged and utterly disarming. In the end, the opera’s focus is as much on her safe delivery into a happy future as that of her sister and family.

Zach Borichevsky’s Matteo was all misplaced passions for most of the opera, his bright tenor a perfect match for Stober’s similar soprano as his best friend, “Zdenko”, the cross-dressed girl who’s fortuitous trickery late in the story has the capital effect of straightening out Matteo’s true affections.

Kiri Deonarine was Fiakermilli, the bubbly belle of the Coachman’s Ball -- something of an interpolated character and vocal type into the story -- whose tarty coloratura provided relief to the dramatic tension. (The opera’s creators were clearly spoofing the naughty-but-fun decadence of the era that had also produced Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.)

Bass Dale Travis’ Count Waldner was the tattered, much put upon pater familias who is reduced to bartering his daughter for survival. Victoria Livengood was his shrill, desperate wife. The two conveyed a fading aristocracy prone to foolish acts and feeble superstitions. If the opera had a fourth act, we would expect the Count’s unreformed bad habits to plague his son-in-law unendingly.

Brian Jagde was the suave leading contender of the three effete suitors to Arabella; his paler clones were Jonathan Michie and Joseph Beutel. The fatuous but accurate fortuneteller was Susanne Hendrix.

Strauss’s music is always serviceable and frequently more than that. It shifts between major and minor to convey the quicksilver mood-swings of hope and despair that propel this drama, often in Zdenka’s dilemmas. Its “parlando” technique moves the action along, with few musical daisies to smell. And as always with Strauss, the woodwinds have a field day and blurting brass signal comedic bits. In sequences where Mandryka believes he has been cuckolded, horns jeer in mockery. Folk tunes suggest the rustic energies of Mandryka’s eastern Slavonia region in Croatia.

Great musical scenes fly by almost as throwaways: the “Right Man” soliloquy, the tender interaction of the two sisters, Zdenka and Matteo’s exchanges, and Arabella’s betrothal scene with Mandryka. Nice as these are, the lack of extended musical indulgences so remarkable in Rosenkavalier may explain why few pick Arabella as a favorite among Strauss operas. But the score keeps its complicated plot moving along without fuss or fanfare and escapes the earlier opera's occasional longeurs. 

Bittersweet Arabella has often been labeled both old-fashioned and cynical, but its roots are clearly in the enlightened and insightful humanism of Mozart’s comic operas. There are no villains, grudges or deaths, and all the characters end up blaming their own foibles for their misfortunes.

In that sense, Arabella is a still an opera for modern times.


Arabella, opera in three acts, premiered 1 July 1933 at Dresden
Music by Richard Strauss, Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

A new production at the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 28 & August 6
Additional performance: August 23

Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

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