Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Ellie Dehn as the title character in Arabella at SF Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In the summer of 1927 the composer Richard Strauss asked his longtime collaborator Hugo von Hoffmansthal—the librettist for Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911), and Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos, 1916), among others—to write a comic opera, "a second Rosenkavalier."

The two men sent ideas back and forth; nothing seemed quite right. But after a few months Hofmannsthal had an inspiration. He recalled a scenario he'd written sometime earlier for a play, Der Fiaker als Graf (The Coachman as Count): "Now yesterday it occurred to me that the whole thing had a touch of Rosenkavalier about it, a most attractive woman as the central figure, surrounded by men, mostly young ones, a few episodes, too—. . .a light opera (in the Rosenkavalier style, but lighter still. . .)" [1]

Hugo von Hofmannsthal around the time of the composition of Der Rosenkavalier.

Hofmannsthal fleshed out the action by combining the characters and setting of The Coachman as Count with plot elements from "Lucidor," a short story he'd written around the time of Der Rosenkavalier. In that story a younger daughter, Lucile, is disguised by her mother as a boy named "Lucidor" in order to aid the marriage prospects of the elder daughter Arabella (the family can't afford to have two daughters "out" at the same time). The new opera would be named after its heroine.

The action of Arabella takes place in the 1860s. Count Waldner has destroyed his family's wealth through his reckless gambling; their only hope is for their daughter Arabella to rescue their fortunes by marrying one of her three rich suitors. Arabella enjoys being taken on sleigh-rides on the Ringstrasse and out to dance at balls; but as she tells her sister (now named Zdenka, perhaps in tribute to the soprano Zdenka Fassbender) none of her suitors is der Richtige, "the right one," with whom there will be "no doubts and no questions."

Lisa della Casa as Arabella, with Anneliese Rothenberger as Zdenka (Munich, 1963, conducted by Josef Keilberth):

Aber der Richtige,
wenns einen gibt
für mich aus dieser Welt,
der will einmal dastehn,
da vor mir,
und wird mich anschaun
und ich ihn,
und keine Zweifel werden sein
und keine Fragen,
und selig werd ich sein
und gehorsam wie ein Kind.

ZDENKA (sie liebevoll ansehend)
Ich weiß nicht, wie du bist,
ich weiß nicht, ob du Recht hast—
dazu hab ich viel zu lieb!
Ich will nur, das du glücklich wirst
mit einem, ders vierdient!
und helfen will ich dir dazu.
(mehr für sich)
So hat die Prophetin es gesehn,
se ganz im Licht,
und ich hinab ins Dunkel.

ARABELLA (für sich)
Aber der Richtige,
wenns einen gibt
für mich aus dieser Welt. . .

ZDENKA (für sich)
Sie ist so schön und so lieb—
ich werde gehn,
und noch in Gehn
werd ich dich segnen,
meine Schwester!

But the right one,
if there is one
for me in this world,
will suddenly stand
there before me,
and he will gaze at me,
and I at him,
and there will be no doubts
and no questions
and I shall be as happy
and obedient as a child.

ZDENKA (looking at her lovingly)
I do not know your heart,
I don't know if you're right,
I love you too much to care!
I only want you to be happy
with one who is worthy of you!
And in this I want to help you.
(more to herself)
For that is what the fortune teller said,
She, bathed in light,
and I plunged in darkness.

ARABELLA (to herself)
But the right one,
if there is one
for me in this world. . .

ZDENKA (to herself)
She is so lovely and so loveable—
I’ll go away,
and still in parting
will I bless you,
my dear sister!

Zdenka, of course, is dressed as a young man, "Zdenko," and in that guise has been trying to act as a go-between with Arabella for Matteo, a poor young officer who is obsessed with her. Arabella is indifferent to Matteo, but Zdenka has fallen in love with him, and passionately pleads his case with her sister to no avail. To keep Matteo from killing himself in despair Zdenka has begun to write him love letters signed with Arabella's name.

Heidi Stober and Ellie Dehn in Act I of Arabella at SF Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

It is Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival. That evening Arabella will attend the Coachman's Ball in the company of her suitors, and at the end of the night must choose one of them to marry or condemn her family to poverty and disgrace. But walking in the street that day she sees a man who looks at her with a thrilling intensity; she can't stop thinking about him.

It turns out that this stranger has been summoned to Vienna by Arabella's father. He sent her photograph to an old army friend in a last-ditch attempt to find her a suitable husband. The old friend has died, but his nephew Mandryka, smitten with Arabella's picture, has come to Vienna from his estates in Croatia in search of her.

At the Coachman's Ball Mandryka and Arabella finally meet. He declares his love; in him she recognizes "the right one," and accepts his proposal of marriage. However, doubt and questions soon follow. Arabella goes to dance a final dance with and bid farewell to each of her suitors. While she is in the ballroom Mandryka overhears "Zdenko" giving Matteo an envelope containing a key to Arabella's room. In a jealous fury Mandryka gets drunk and, when Arabella's father upbraids him, accuses her of betrayal. Everyone heads for the Waldner's hotel, where Mandryka encounters Matteo and Arabella together. . .

Ellie Dehn as Arabella is the center of attention at the Coachman's Ball in Act II. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Hofmannsthal was right to emphasize the lightness of Arabella—the plot requires a number of suspensions of disbelief. But Strauss, evidently moved by the themes of marital suspicion and forgiveness, produced one of his most passionately lyrical scores. In the first act there is the sisters' duet and Mandryka's aria of fervent yearning; in the second, the love duet between Arabella and Mandryka; and in the third, a touching reconciliation scene.

Brian Mulligan and Ellie Dehn in Act III of Arabella at SF Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Seen in performance at San Francisco Opera on October 28, the musical glories of Arabella were almost overwhelmingly evident. Conductor Marc Albrecht savored but did not wallow in Strauss's lush melodies, and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra brought out all the detailed colors of the orchestration. It was almost as great a revelation as hearing Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne this summer.

Vocally this is an extremely demanding opera. It requires of both male and female singers not only beauty of tone, but the ability to float long-breathed high-lying phrases over a surging orchestra. As Arabella Ellie Dehn had a strikingly beautiful voice (if not always, perhaps, an ideally sustained legato) and an elegant demeanor; her performance, which emphasized Arabella's seriousness over her girlishness, gave greater emotional weight to her fateful choice. Her duet with the impassioned Zdenka of the pure-voiced soprano Heidi Stober in the first act was exquisite, and would have stopped the show had Albrecht permitted it. As Mandryka Brian Mulligan's voice glowed with burnished warmth; if later in the opera he seemed at moments to have tired somewhat (Mandryka is onstage for almost the entire second and third acts), he rose to the occasion of the reconciliation duet with soaring ardency.

Ellie Dehn as Arabella and Brian Mulligan as Mandryka in an excerpt of the Act II love duet from the San Francisco Opera production:

Where this performance was lacking was in the production. Director Tim Albery's blocking was sometimes puzzling, and missed several opportunities suggested by the libretto. He also updated the time of the action from the 1860s to 1910, but apart from the lovely gowns it gave Dehn the opportunity to wear, it wasn't clear why. There was no sense that the opera was taking place just a few years before the cataclysmic destruction of World War I, or at a time of intense cultural and political ferment in Vienna. The Rosenkavalier we saw at Glyndebourne also updated the action to the same period, and made far too much of a point of referencing contemporary figures such as Sigmund Freud and the painters Gustav Klimt and Ernst Kirchner. But something in between these two approaches might have worked. In addition to the costumes, the decor could have been another place to nod to fin-de-siècle Viennese design. Tobias Hoheisel's drab three-piece set, though, lacked either a sense of aristocratic opulence or of modernist experimentation. It just looked cheap.

Brian Mulligan's Mandryka confronts Daniel Johansson's Matteo in Act III. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

There is another aspect of Arabella that perhaps could not have been alluded to without overdetermining our responses. The opera had its première on 1 July 1933 in Dresden just a few months after the Reichstag fire had enabled Hitler to consolidate Nazi power. (Hofmannsthal and Strauss had been working on the opera, of course, since 1927.) Through no fault of its creators, in these circumstances an opera looking back nostalgically to the days of Imperial Vienna might be seen at best as willfully oblivious and at worst as passively complicit. (Strauss's later cooperation with the Nazi regime, in part to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law, might further tilt the perception of some viewers towards the "passively complicit" end of the scale.) This context is mentioned in Larry Rothe's and Paul Thomason's program essays.

As if that isn't enough, there is more darkness hovering over this "light" opera: Arabella was to be the last collaboration between Hofmannsthal and Strauss. In July 1929 Hofmannsthal's son Franz committed suicide; two days later as Hofmannsthal was setting out for the funeral he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. We can't know what Strauss and Hofmannsthal might have gone on to create, but we can be grateful for the six operas they did complete together. For me first among them will always be Der Rosenkavalier, but the sheer loveliness of Arabella will always have its own special appeal.

Many thanks to Matthew Shilvock, General Director of San Francisco Opera, for programming this underperformed work. The final performance of Arabella takes place on November 3.

  1. A Working Friendship: The correspondence between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated by Hanns Hammelmann and Ewald Osers, Random House, 1961, p. 442.

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