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Strauss' comedy of errors

by Philip Campbell

Ellie Dehn in the title role of Strauss' "Arabella." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ellie Dehn in the title role of Strauss' "Arabella." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera  

If you believe in love at first sight or you're just a pushover for the lyricism of Richard Strauss, San Francisco Opera has a production of his flawed but charming "Arabella" set to seduce you once more.

Director Tim Albery's new-to-SFO staging opened last week and proved we are still willing to suspend disbelief for a pretty tune and bittersweet smile. The party may be ending for the characters in the play, but contemporary reality makes us long for nostalgic nonsense and more innocent ideals. Last of the six operas in which Strauss partnered with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, this romantic comedy of errors still needs a play doctor, but the far-fetched plot is saved by the characteristically rich and textured score.

The famous librettist died before Strauss could receive needed revisions, but the composer went on to set the text, banking on the past success of their "Der Rosenkavalier." It was a gamble that has kept "Arabella" on the fringes of the operatic repertoire, creaky and short of perfection, but still alluring.

The bourgeois Waldner family lives in genteel poverty in a Viennese hotel, worsened by the Count's gambling problem and two unmarried daughters. The Countess, with a belief in fortune-tellers and the cash value of feminine beauty, has raised one of their girls as a boy to clear the field for beautiful and promising Arabella. Three virtually indistinguishable young aristocrats are in pursuit, but Arabella wants to hold out for true love, and her sister Zdenka has a troubling yen for a fourth suitor herself (the only one worth his salt). Army officer Matteo is heterosexual (well-l-l really?), and he doesn't seem to pick up on younger sister's boy crush, though Zdenka (Zdenko) beds him in the last act by impersonating Arabella in the dark. The real meat of the drama lies in the immediate attraction the title heroine feels for rough-edged and honest Croatian landowner Mandryka.

Arabella's parents are right out of Jane Austen, and her sibling is ripe for Freudian analysis; her ardent wooers are bores, and Viennese society is shallow. Gruff Mandryka has potent appeal, and he, too, has fallen hard in an instant. After Arabella's fidelity is doubted by her supposed rendezvous with Matteo, Mandryka rejects her with equally swift action. Zdenka comes clean in time, and Matteo, without a lot of questioning, suddenly accepts her as his real love. In one of opera's sweetest moments, Arabella manages to forgive Mandryka's rush to judgment with the offer of a glass of pure water.

Heidi Stober as Zdenka in Strauss Arabella. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera  

Director Albery's rather sober-sided vision has traveled from Toronto to Minneapolis and Santa Fe before arriving here as his Company debut. His determination to downplay the comedic aspects of the plot heightens the slightly anxious undertow of the story and music. Conductor Marc Albrecht, also making his SFO debut, pays meticulous attention to the potentially bewildering dialogue. Amidst the handsome background of production designer Tobias Hoheisel's monochromatic unit set (more than 50 shades of gray), effectively illuminated by lighting designer David Finn, the broad characters take on subtler depths of meaning.

Moving the action from 1860 to the period before the First World War also adds urgency and explains Hofmannsthal's clumsy attempts at humor. Albery has rescued Arabella from a life of monotonous Viennese luxury to provide her with enough love to survive the world when it really falls apart.

Opening night had moments of disjointed orchestral playing, and the cast needed another dress rehearsal, but pluses outweighed the minuses, and as one satisfied audience member said, "I'm a sucker for Strauss, anyway."

In the title role, soprano Ellie Dehn anchored the performance with a pleasing new roundness in her tone and gracious presence. There is something a little cool about her acting, but Arabella has cautiousness about her, and the warmth of Dehn's singing was convincing.

Baritone Bryan Mulligan was stretched to his limits as Mandryka, but he coped admirably, and his acting is strong and believable. He fully conveyed the soul of the man. Instances of stress were understandable.

Soprano Heidi Stober is another trusted member of SFO's core of regular singers, and her endearingly complicated Zdenka may be added to her memorable gallery. Suitably awkward as a boy, she revealed herself as a thoroughly sympathetic female in Act III.

Andrew Manea, Christian Pursell, and especially Scott Quinn as Count Elemer managed to contrast themselves well as Arabella's band of suitors. As the tacked-on cabaret singer "The Fiakermilli" in Act II, soprano Hye Jung Lee sang with annoyingly bright coloratura, but the role is only a pop of color, and she did stand out in scarlet livery.

Swedish tenor Daniel Johansson in his Company and role debut as the feverish Matteo made a delightful first impression. His combination of clear lyric line, vocal power and intense commitment would probably shine in Mozart, too.

Rounding the ensemble as Arabella's parents, mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens was adorably fussy as the Countess, and baritone Richard Paul Fink drew some genuine laughs as the lovable miscreant Count. They bolstered the failings of the libretto with jolly sincerity.

"Arabella" continues in repertory through Nov. 3.


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