The Canadian Opera Company has made two commendable choices for its 2017 fall season. One is Richard Strauss’s lyric comedy Arabella being produced for the first time by the COC and the other one is Donizetti’s perennial favourite, The Elixir of Love.
A fine cast led by Erin Wall in the name role, Tomas Konieczny as Mandryka and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Tim Albery’s production goes a long way in making the production highly commendable, but no one can save the creaky and silly plot from producing twitches near the end.
Much can be said and in fact has been written about the social and political milieu of Arabella, the year in which it is set (Vienna in 1860), the time in which it was written (late1920’s) and the date of its premiere in Dresden (July 1933). But it is essentially a simple love story that demands a serious suspension of disbelief.
Arabella is a beautiful woman who is looking for Mr. Right. She saw a foreigner gazing at her in the street and she fell in love with him on the spot. Mr. Right has been found. Mandryka, Mr. Right that is, has the benefit of being loaded, is on his way to Arabella’s residence and he is smitten by her as well. He saw her picture.
Count Waldner, Arabella’s father, is a retired officer whose main occupation now is gambling while looking for a rich husband for Arabella. The word you are thinking of was not in current use at the time but the Count has an unassailable reason for what he is doing. He is broke.
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal adds complications and a sense of urgency to the consummation of instant love, with the consonant need to achieve the riddance of the misunderstandings, and the aversion of bankruptcy. Mr. Right has to be found today, the last day of the Carnival, because there can be no pursuit of marital ambitions after midnight. It is Lent and fasting is imperative.
In fairness, Hofmannsthal did not live to revise the libretto and he dies before Strauss had begun composing the music. Nevertheless, Strauss composed luscious, melting and radiant music for the creaky libretto that lifts the opera above the silly plot complications and common farcical elements.
Soprano Erin Wall raises Arabella above some of the traits that one would find objectionable in our heroine. She knows nothing about this man and she will live happily ever after in the forests of Croatia! Sure. Wall’s lustrous voice and assured bearing make us believe Arabella and enjoy a superb performance.
Polish bass-baritone Konieczny plays the rich Croatian landowner Mandryka, a bit of a country bumpkin, perhaps, who loves Arabella deeply even though he knows nothing about her. We accept him as he is, thanks to Konieczny’s resonant voice and his convincing expression of love and ignore the downside.
Soprano Jane Archibald turns in a highly commendable performance as Arabella’s sister Zdenka. Zdenka causes all the complications that take too long to unravel but she deserves our sympathy. She is raised as a boy because girls are high maintenance and she is desperately in love with Matteo (a miscast Michael Brandenburg) who is desperately in love with Arabella. You get the idea.
Baritone John Fanning plays the gambling Count Waldner straight. Perhaps it is the best way to present the foolish man who is pursued by creditors and his solution is to dispose of his daughter to a rich bidder without missing a card game. Very good work by Fanning.
Set and Costume Designer Tobias needs three sets. A hotel suite where Arabella’s family resides, a ballroom and the hotel lobby for the final act. The hotel suite is aggressively gray, with no wall decorations and a sofa and a chair for furniture. The semicircular panels are turned around to create a lighter gray scene for the ballroom. And similar work is done for the final scene which is lit more brightly for the happy conclusion. The sets are simple and functional and eschew extravagant opulence. Waldner is broke, after all.
Patrick Lange conducts the COC Orchestra in this musically rich opera with a flawed libretto.
Arabella by Richard Strauss opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times until October 28, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca