Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for the penultimate performance of Richard Strauss’ Arabella by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). (The final performance will take place this coming Saturday.) Some may think my choice of headline unsuitable; but I feel it is worth calling out that, in the canon of Strauss operas, Arabella is among those most consistently affable. There is no shortage of flaws among the characters, but we can nod at those flaws with sympathetic understanding.
Nevertheless, as has already been observed, Tim Albery (working with SFO for the first time) chose to stage the narrative in such a way that a dark shadow is hanging over all that affability. While Hugo von Hofmannsthal set his libretto in 1860 Vienna, Albery chose to move things forward half a century to 1910. Rather than dealing with the declining fortunes of an aristocracy that has not yet come to terms with power residing in the bourgeoisie, Albery reminds us that the decline is about to get precipitous with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a visit to Sarajevo. (One of the most appealing things about Lotfi Mansouri’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, last presented by SFO in the summer of 2007, was a subtle gesture at the very end suggesting a coming-to-terms of the new generations of both aristocracy and bourgeoisie.)
The result is that Albery makes it clear that this is not a “happily every after” story. In the background Arabella’s father (baritone Richard Paul Fink) cannot wait to get back to his card game (and lose more money, now that he knows that his daughter’s marriage will yield more of it), while, in the foreground, Arabella (soprano Ellie Dehn) and Mandryka (baritone Brian Mulligan) have their own coming-to-terms over the hard truth that life is not a fairy tale, making them better prepared for the future that the dogs of war are about to thrust upon them. In that context, however, my attention shifted yesterday to Zdenka (soprano Heidi Stober) and Matteo (tenor Daniel Johansson, making his SFO debut). As a young soldier, Matteo is about to shift his venue from the “good life” of a Hofmannsthal libretto to the pages of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, where he is likely to end up as dead meat even before that Christmas truce that served as the focus of attention in Davies Symphony Hall this past week. On the other hand we have a certain amount of confidence that Arabella and Mandryka will weather the years of storm to come, perhaps following a trajectory similar to that of Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
My second visit to this opera also afforded me the view of the orchestra pit that I value so much in my subscription tickets. I have already written about the impeccable sense of balance that Marc Albrecht brought to his conducting. However, it was through the visual impressions of that conducting that I could really appreciate the many virtues of Strauss’ score.
There is a tendency to think of Strauss only in terms of his grand sounds, and there is certainly no shortage of them in Arabella. On the other hand there is also no shortage of light touches, many of which benefit when what the eye sees is what the ears may barely notice. For example, there are subtle little toots from a trumpet following the conclusion of the “Richtige” duet suggesting that one of those counts wooing Arabella is on the way but still at a distance. In a more serious vein some of the richest instrumental expression comes from a viola solo that makes one wish that Strauss had written a concerto for the instrument.
Arabella (Ellie Dehn, right) explains “der Richtige” to her sister Zdenka (Heidi Stober, left) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
Mind you, Albrecht’s sure hand made certain that the orchestra never overwhelmed the actions of the vocalists; but this was a case in which “prima la musica” was as applicable to the instrumentalists in the pit was it was to the activities up on the stage.