Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first of five performances of Richard Strauss’ Arabella. Composed between 1929 and 1932 and given its first performance at the Dresden Semperoper on July 1, 1933, Arabella was the last of Strauss’ six collaborations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal as his librettist. The staging was by Tim Albery for a production shared with the Santa Fe Opera, the Minnesota Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company. It received its premiere in Santa Fe in the summer of 2012.
On the surface Arabella appears to be a romantic comedy in which the woman after whom the opera is named eventually finds a man she wants to marry, the man she calls “der Richtige” (the right one). It can be taken as a comedy due to the many complications that arise; but these are all “surface level” events. Ever since his first collaboration with Strauss (“Elektra,” completed in 1908), Hofmannsthal had a knack for seeking out deeper levels of plot development to make sure than none of this characters, even the most minor ones, would be taken as stock figures.
Albery could not have done a better job in grasping the depths of Hofmannsthal’s libretto and presenting them clearly to anyone in the audience willing to pay attention. Indeed, the very first character to sing, a fortune-teller (mezzo Jill Grove), is depicted with just the right combination of mannerisms that know exactly how to engage Arabella’s mother (mezzo Michaela Martens) while making it clear that everything about that engagement is fraudulent. For that matter, Albery seems to have made it his objective to remind us that every character in this libretto is, in one way or another, flawed. Furthermore, by transplanting the Viennese setting from 1860 to 1910, Albery subtly reminds us that all those flaws are chickens about to come to roost with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a visit to Sarajevo.
As to the primary plot line, the opera is about far more than Arabella (soprano Ellie Dehn) recognizing “der Richtige” in Mandryka (baritone Brian Mulligan) practically at first sight. The complications that arise about halfway into the second act and spill over into much of third make it clear that this is far from a simple tale of dreams coming true. As Albery tells the story, Arabella and Mandryka do not survive those complications to live “happily ever after;” but they do emerge from the process with clearer-eyed perceptions of not only each other but also the fragility of the world in which they must live. (By setting the narrative in 1910, it should be evident to the audience that those woods that provide so much comfort to Mandryka’s home life will not remain idyllic for much longer.)
Mandryka (Brian Mulligan) and Arabella (Ellie Dehn) prepare to face the future together at the end of Richard Strauss’ opera (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)
This was Albery’s first opportunity to work with SFO. Similarly, it was Marc Albrecht’s first visit to the conductor’s podium in the orchestra pit. One of Strauss’ most distinguishing features as an opera composer was his ability to use instrumental resources to establish context. One result is that, throughout his opera canon, there are relatively few moments in which the music thrusts one or more singers into the spotlight. In Arabella there is basically only one of them, Arabella’s duet with her sister Zdenka (soprano Heidi Stober) about “der Richtige.”
The rest of the time the instrumental writing is one of intricate textures of bustling activity. That activity frequently is observed on the stage; but, just as often, it embodies the conflicted interior monologues (none of which are actually sung) of the characters. Albrecht always knew how to balance these textures to make sure that the full scope of their connotations was clear to the attentive listener. At the same time he consistently balanced that essential background against the foreground activities taking place on the stage. Last night was Albrecht’s operatic conducting debut in the United States, and those of us who appreciate the activities in the orchestra pit just as much as those on stage will be well justified in hoping that we shall see more of him.