You can be excused, gentle reader, if you don’t. Richard Strauss’s opera of 1933 isn’t done much, except in German-speaking countries, these days. For Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, this Arabella was a company premiere – and a glance at the Operabase website (see here) reveals that the COC is the only company outside Germany staging the piece this year. But then perhaps all this makes sense, as the COC has Germanic leanings these days. (I am reminded of the time that Toronto Symphony conductor Peter Oundjian naughtily referred to the COC as “Die Deutsche Oper am Ontariosee.”)
I’d describe the opera as a kind of “Rosenkavalier-lite.” Like Der Rosenkavalier, the story unfolds in the rarefied world of the Austrian aristocracy. There are romantic involvements, misunderstandings, resolved misunderstandings, and a big happy ending. If it were a Hollywood movie, it would be a screwball comedy. Yet Arabella is a leaner opera than Rosenkavalier – evidence of a change in Strauss’s style in the two decades separating the pieces.
The COC`s production – which is really a co-production with companies in Santa Fe and Minneapolis – respects the sleek elegance of the opera’s music. Director Tim Albery and designer Tobias Hoheisel have so deftly bumped the piece forward half a century, from the 1860s to just before World War I, that even the strictest “operatic fundamentalist” couldn’t object to the change.
Happily, this Arabella features a well-chosen cast – many of them Canadian – who excel as both singers and actors. As Arabella, soprano Erin Wall is nothing short of brilliant, as she negotiates the many qualities she is called upon to present. The daughter of a distinguished (but financially ruined) Viennese aristocrat, Arabella must decide whom she will marry, and as she struggles with this question, she is “proud, coquettish and cold,” as her younger sister Zdenka tells her – but also charming, tender, ardent, reflective, and many other things as well.
Sweetly yet decisively, she rejects three headstrong young men seeking her hand. (She also completely ignores the hapless Matteo, who confides his love for Arabella to Zdenka.) Arabella is attracted to yet another man – a stranger who stands in the street watching her window. The complexity of her character is encapsulated in the soaring aria “Aber der Richtige,” sung with heartfelt eloquence by Wall. When the aria became a duet, with Jane Archibald as Zdenka, the two sopranos gave a show-stopping performance.
The mysterious man turns out to be Mandryka, a wealthy landowner, who has received a photograph of Arabella, and has come to Vienna from the provinces to win her. As Mandryka, bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, was the most imposing figure on stage, bringing a Wagnerian intensity to his role, and energizing every scene he appeared in. Like Arabella’s other suitors, he could be headstrong – yet he oozed sincerity and conviction, and from the moment he stepped on stage, his final union with Arabella was an inevitability. (However, there are some twists and turns along the way.)
In Archibald’s hands, Zdenka – who prefers to dress as a boy rather than a girl, for reasons not entirely clear – is a curious character. She feels for poor Matteo, and sets in motion the misunderstanding and confusion that threatens to derail the union of Arabella and Mandryka. Archibald’s voice is a little lighter than Wall’s, but lovely and lyrical, and she played her quirky role to the max.
Tenor Michael Brandenburg brought his bright tenor to the role of Matteo. This role has a small dramatic range – not much beyond fecklessness and confusion – but Brandenburg did this as well as anyone might. Seeing him on stage, in Act III, with a fearsome Konieczny, was almost surreal, like finding Don Ottavio and Wotan in the same opera.
Baritone John Fanning was in rich voice as Count Waldner, Arabella’s gambling-addicted father. And while the small role of Fiakermilli – some kind of professional party girl, evidently – seemed quite unnecessary to the opera, soprano Claire de Sévigné was entirely equal to its coloratura demands.
In the pit, conductor Patrick Lange led the COC Orchestra in a taut yet fluid performance. Indeed, in the hands of this orchestra, the intricate and sophisticated score to Arabella sounded like a well-known repertoire item, rather than the rarity it is.
Arabella will never be anyone's favourite opera, and it was risky of the COC to open its 2017-18 season with such a little-known work. But it appears that COC general director Alexander Neef is a better gambler than Count Walder, and his daring decision has paid off rich dividends. Go see Arabella, if you haven’t already!
© Colin Eatock 2017