ARABELLA in Toronto: rich sounds, pale colours (10.10.2017)
Erin Wall (Arabella). Copyright: Michael Cooper
Long equated in North America with the Metropolitan Opera and Otto Schenk, Arabella is now available in an essentially traditional if considerably less opulent version designed by Tobias Hoheisel for the Santa Fe Opera in 2012. I left the second performance of the Canadian Opera Company run in Toronto on Oct. 10 with kind thoughts about the cast and mixed feelings about the production.
Happily, there is no elaborate concept encumbering the Viennese setting or the romantic essence of the story. Director Tim Albery has accepted the comic action at face value and timed the many, many entrances and exits of Act 2 as gracefully as possible. The title character locked eyes lovingly with the besotted landowner Mandryka precisely when Richard Strauss required this to happen. Arabella’s slow descent of a staircase was an apt if simple complement to the soaring music of the final minutes. (Count me among those who wonder whether Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had he lived to revise Acts 2 and 3, would have invented something more compelling than a glass of water to function as a symbol of everlasting love.)
We could be grateful also that the production team, while updating the 1860 setting by about 50 years, at least respected the timeline of the empire. A few art nouveau touches do not hurt as long as Arabella remains in the era when gentlemen really could be addressed as “Graf” and dueling was legal.
All the same, the pale colours and strange absence of hangings and furnishings (even the mirror of Act 2 was drearily opaque) drained the evening of an element of gaiety that the composer and librettist were probably counting on to counterbalance their own penchant for psychological probing. It must also be said that in none of its configurations did the set appear to be a hotel. The general impression was of a private residence that had not yet been painted or even occupied.
Musical matters were more positive. Canadian soprano Erin Wall (the original Arabella of Santa Fe) applied a big, luminous sound to the title role and acted with dignity. If it was hard to believe in the frivolous side of this statuesque heroine, we could identify with her aspiration for a simpler life. Poland’s Tomasz Konieczny, who self-identifies as a bass-baritone despite his penetrating top, was strong if not exactly warm as Arabella’s rustic Mr. Right.
Wall’s compatriot and fellow soprano Jane Archibald was a vivid Zdenka. Their voices were not always easy to disentangle in the sisterly love duet of Act 1. This might be Strauss’s intention. All the hapless suitors were fine except the one who mattered most, Matteo. Perhaps the American tenor Michael Brandenburg was having an off night.
The German mezzo-soprano Gundula Hintz sang and acted vividly as Adelaide, Arabella’s exasperated mother. Veteran Canadian baritone John Fanning did not always project strongly but impersonated Count Waldner, her father, to comic perfection. Canadian coloratura Claire de Sévigné as the Fiakermilli hit her high notes and otherwise did well enough in one of the most superfluous roles in opera.
German conductor Patrick Lange elicited a transparent performance from the excellent COC Orchestra, finding nostalgic curvature in the lyrical episodes and making the most of Strauss’s colorful inspirations (such as the boisterous musical portrayal of the bear Mandryka claims to have wrestled back home). If the turbulence in the pit occasionally overcame the singers in Act 1, we could reflect on how the orchestra in this relatively tuneless score embodies so much of the interest.
This is especially true of the seething introduction to Act 3, which represents the (entirely implausible) sexual congress of Zdenka and Matteo. Albery, thankfully, did not give the audience in the Four Seasons Centre any explicit hints as to what was going on. He did indulge in the common directorial fondness for starting the stage action before the music and letting the waiting staff do the work that was once accomplished by stage hands behind a curtain. Minutes flew like hours during the pause between Acts 2 and 3, as full-dress service personnel swept up the roses Mandryka had scornfully tossed on the floor. The audience applauded ironically to break the monotony.
Such strategies are meant to underline the overt theatricality of opera. Unfortunately, a work as stagey and formulaic as Arabella needs all the naturalism and empathy it can get. The COC run concludes on Oct. 28.