Strauss’ ‘Arabella’: Hidden Trove Of Seductive Beauty

Ellie Dehn, center, sang the title role of ‘Arabella,’ the lyric comedy by Richard Strauss staged at San Francisco Opera. (Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
By Ilana Walder-Biesanz

SAN FRANCISCO – Richard Strauss’ Arabella languishes on the edges of the core operatic repertoire. San Francisco Opera last performed it twenty seasons ago. Its sheer, breathtaking beauty makes it hard to understand why. More soaring in its lyricism than Der Rosenkavalier and more accessibly tuneful than Elektra, Arabella seems a natural choice for a popular Strauss staple. Although San Francisco Opera’s current production has flaws, it moved me deeply and reminded me why I adore this score.

Arabella (Ellie Dehn), right, and her sister, Zdenka (Heidi Stober).

The production, first mounted at Santa Fe Opera in 2012 and most recently seen at the Canadian Opera Company in 2017, featured conductor Marc Albrecht in his U.S. opera debut. Chief conductor of the Dutch National Opera, the German maestro is a prominent Strauss interpreter who has led Die Frau ohne Schatten at Teatro alla Scala (2012) and Ariadne auf Naxos at Aix-en-Provence (2018).

In the first of his performances at the San Francisco Opera on Oct. 16, Strauss’ music dripped with feeling without becoming sappy. The orchestra built a richly textured sound with nuanced shaping. Albrecht literally jumped into the chaotic start to Act III, and the orchestra’s ensuing ruckus contrasted sharply with the shimmering delicacy of the opera’s romantic passages. Unfortunately, the singers were often difficult to hear over the orchestra.

Brian Mulligan made his role debut as Mandryka.

Arabella is funny as well as lyrical. The picture Hofmannsthal and Strauss paint of ideal masculinity is exaggerated to the point of parody: A country man who literally wrestles with bears displays boorish manners and a bone-crushing handshake. Even after finding “der Richtige” (Mr. Right), Arabella doesn’t have things easy; she has to break up with three suitors in a row! The plot also contains the usual absurdities. Can the lovestruck Matteo really not tell the difference between Arabella and her sister Zdenka? But plausibility is hardly to be expected from an opera plot.

In her debut in the title role, Ellie Dehn displayed acting ability; her Arabella matured believably from careless flirt into sensitive young woman. Her flowing stream of sound had a touching, yearning quality. Many lines emerged in a stunningly beautiful manner, but sheer lack of power kept her singing from filling the house. As Zdenka, Heidi Stober revealed a steady sound with a silvery top, and she tossed off accusations with a cutting tone. The two sisters’ Act I duet was the musical highlight of the opera (though its end was sadly marred by the tinny sound of sleigh bells). Stober clearly had fun with her character’s immaturity and tendency to be overdramatic.

Ellie Dehn brought ‘a touching, yearning quality’ to Arabella.

Brian Mulligan  sang Mandryka (another role debut) in a gravelly, weighty voice with bursts of warmth. His character was gruff, smitten, and awkward – obviously out of his element in cosmopolitan Vienna. As the discarded suitor Matteo, Daniel Johansson (making both his San Francisco Opera and role debuts) was the picture of despair but shouted most of his lines. Richard Paul Fink was delicious as Arabella’s gambling-addicted father Count Waldner (role debut), especially when hopping about and repeating, “Teschek, bedien dich!” (“Loser, help yourself!”) to celebrate his newly acquired cash. Hye Jung Lee sang the stratospheric fireworks of Fiakermilli (role debut) with sparkle and aplomb.

Director Tim Albery set the production in 1910 (rather than the original 1860) to recall the elegance and hedonism of Vienna’s final years before World War I (and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Tobias Hoheisel’s serviceable, monochromatic set evoked the drabness of hotel living. Double doors, a grand staircase, and ugly banquettes topped by a clouded mirror re-arranged themselves to form various equally dull rooms. The costumes, despite sticking to the same color palate, were anything but boring. Arabella’s striped sledding suit and dazzling silver ballgown had me twitching with dress envy.

At the end of the opera, Arabella forgives Mandryka with a touching gesture to the orchestra’s redemptive strains. The moral – that growing into womanhood means learning to accept and pardon the harm done by men – is regressive, and Mr. Albery’s production didn’t do anything to temper it. Yet even a questionable ending and imperfect cast couldn’t ruin Arabella’s magic. Strauss’ score was enough to ensure a glorious emotional catharsis and a well-spent night at the opera. 

Ilana Walder-Biesanz reviews opera and theater for San Francisco Classical Voice, Opera Online, Bachtrack, and Stark Insider. She studied in England as a Gates-Cambridge Scholar (European Literature and Culture) and in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar (Theater Studies).