The secret to a successful production of any Richard Strauss opera is finding the cast. Singers need to be able to sing over the composer's complex and thick orchestration as well as float delicious soft tones and spin phrases—both the men and the women. In this, the Santa Fe Opera has succeeded brilliantly with their new production of Arabella. This is, indeed, a dream Strauss cast. Add to this the magnificent conducting of Sir Andrew Davis and there is much to love about this production.
The opera itself has always presented a problem for fans of the composer and his soulmate librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who died before the book was completed and polished. It is really a plot better suited to Offenbach or Kálmán than the passionate style of Strauss. Still, the composer manages to cast a melancholy musical veil over the unlikely proceedings and the silliness of the opera only occasionally breaks through.
Here is a brief approximation of the story. Be warned, it is confusing.
Set in the 1850s, the creaky plot centers on the faded but aristocratic Waldner family, bankrupt by their father's gambling. Their only hope is to marry Arabella, their beautiful daughter, off to someone solvent. They disguise their younger daughter, Zdenka, as a boy because they can't afford to outfit and market two girls at the same time. Zdenka is in love with Lieutenant Matteo who is in love with Arabella. He thinks Arabella is in love with him because Zdenka is sending him love letters and signing Arabella name. Meanwhile, Arabella is holding out on her suitors (three interchangeable aristocrats) for true love that turns up unexpectedly as a country landowner, Mandryka. He is the nephew of her father's now-dead military friend, to whom he sent a picture of Arabella hoping to pique his interest. At the Coachman's ball, Mandryka and Arabella hit it off and are immediately engaged. Mandryka overhears Zdenka (still pretending she is speaking for Arabella) setting up a tryst with Matteo and he thinks that Arabella is having one last fling before running off with him for a bucolic life in the country. Everyone challenges each other to a duel, but all is revealed in the end and everyone decides to forgive and forget.
I warned you.
Director Tim Albery did his best to make something serious out of what Strauss had originally hoped would be another Der Rosenkavalier. He took his cue from that masterpiece by patterning the Arabella characters after those in this opera's more illustrious predecessor. The monochromatic silver and pastel tinted gray sets and costumes of Tobias Hoheisel added to the faded nature of the era. Lighting by David Finn was equally gray and un-specular.
But the glory of the evening on Wednesday was in the nearly perfect Strauss singing (although some wished that we were seeing Rosenkavalier instead).
Soprano Erin Wall was vocally resplendent, but her portrayal of Arabella seemed aloof and internal. Heidi Stober was wonderful as Zdenka. Her silvery soprano was just beautiful throughout. Mark Delavan's resonant baritone voice sang Mandryka's complicated music with ease and managed to make the unlikely evolution from lovesickness to manic jealousy seem somewhat believable. Bass-baritone Dale Travis gathered some shred of dignity as Count Waldner, no matter how often it is tattered. As his dotty wife, Adelaide Waldner sang with a nearly baritoneish mezzo. Tenor Zach Borichevsky, as the confused Matteo, showed an impressive tenor that is perfectly suited to the German repertoire. Brian Jagde, who impressed greatly as a last minute replacement in the role of Cavaradossi in Tosca, was equally impressive as the rejected suitor, Count Elemer. Kiri Deonarine was magnificent in the fiendishly difficult coloratura part of Fiakermilli, a sort-of master of ceremonies in the second act Coachman's Ball.
Arabella may not be everyone's favorite Strauss opera, and my reservations and observations about it are certainly not original, but this production made an excellent case for it. When wonderfully sung, superbly conducted, and sympathetically staged as it is in this production, you can forgive all the shortcomings of the plot and its prêt-à-porter fit with the glorious music of Richard Strauss and revel in the sheer beauty of vocalism of the singers.
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Tosca
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's The Pearl Fishers
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Maometto II
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's King Roger