Some compositions catch on right away, others take awhile to find an audience.
I saw and enjoyed Arabella tonight in the Canadian Opera Company premiere production, the first time they’ve presented it: the sixth and last (premiered in 1933) in a series of collaborations between composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. With the exception of the even rarer Die ägyptische Helena it is the least popular of the six according to operabase.com.
There are likely two inter-connected reasons for this, that it’s not easy to do and not yet well-known. Producers may ask: why risk doing a difficult work when the audiences may not fill the seats? And so you have the perfect storm of an unfamiliar work that can’t catch on or become familiar even if it’s quite a wonderful composition.
After seeing it tonight and watching the rapturous ovation greeting the production afterwards, I’m inclined to think that it was ahead of its time. Thank you COC for bringing this opera to Toronto. Arabella’s pace is much faster than Rosenkavalier (1911) without the set-pieces that made that work both popular and more easily intelligible.
The story seems especially apt in this era of Harvey Weinstein and the pussy-grabber POTUS, a time when the quid pro quo can suck the romance out of any love story. And with Arabella we’re watching an inter-cultural collision of mores. Where the COC – Santa Fe Opera – Minnesota Opera co-production (directed by Tim Albery & with sets & costumes designed by Tobias Hoheisel) doesn’t re-frame the opera in another time or place, the opera feels surprisingly modern, the performances all too real.
Count Waldner and his wife Adelaide are broke, desperately hoping that marriage of their daughter Arabella might rescue their fortunes. We meet their other daughter Zdenka who dresses as a boy and calls herself Zdenko. As Anna Russell might say
“But that’s the beauty of Grand Opera: you can do anything so long as you sing it.”
But in 2017 I’ve met people like Zdenko (or Zdenka). Once the opera is underway and they start singing? we get swept up in the story.
Count Waldner has sent a picture of his beautiful daughter to an old friend from the army hoping to stir some interest, not expecting that a rich young nephew would show up instead. And so things really came to life when young Mandryka shows up, baritone Tomasz Konieczny in the most interesting vocal & dramatic portrayal of the night. I’d seen the role before on video, not realizing how many opportunities there were for comedy, with the right performer. Konieczny underplays much of the time to begin, giving us a portrait of a smitten lover from a foreign culture, a bit shy about his backward ways, and showing his awkwardness through his body language.
However when Mandryka seems to catch Arabella in the act of cheating –overhearing a key being given that will get a man into her room –he is transformed. The carnival celebration of Act II in the Strauss opera (presented in two parts by the COC, but written in 3 acts by Strauss/ Hofmannsthal) is a descent into disorder, an anti-masque of drunken revelry that presents an opportunity for performers who can take the stage. Konieczny comes into his own, as extroverted in Act II as he was restrained when we first met him, alongside the deliciously decadent Claire de Sévigné as the Fiakermilli, giving Mandryka a run for his money as the life of the party.
The arc of Konieczny’s performance, when he discovers that he misunderstood what he heard –that Arabella did not betray him—is delightful to watch, leading to the final reconciliation with Erin Wall as Arabella, one of the most impressive performances in any year from the COC.
Wall was brought to life by Konieczny, coming into her own in spectacular fashion in the last act, when she stands up for herself and refuses to be dishonoured by mere appearances. Jane Archibald sang with wonderful subtlety as Zdenka, a huge difficult role that she seemed to handle quite easily. Michael Brandenburg was appropriately passionate as Matteo the emotional blackmailer, whose threats of suicide keep manipulating poor Zdenka(o), in another very difficult role to sing. The opera began strongly with the scene between Adelaide and her fortune teller, Gundula Hintz and Megan Latham respectively, joined later in the act by John Fanning as Count Waldner, also great fun but totally believable.
The COC orchestra were the heart & soul of the production, led with a wonderful sense of flair by Patrick Lange. I prefer Strauss to resemble Mozart rather than Wagner, a similarity I felt often with Lange’s leadership.
Don’t miss your chance to see and hear a delightful rarity from the COC. Arabella runs until October 28 at the Four Seasons Centre.