San Francisco Opera 2018-19 Review: Arabella

Ellie Dehn & Brian Mulligan Solid Though Strauss’ Work Never Soars

By Lois Silverstein

San Francisco 2018: Vienna 2010. Connection? “Arabella,” Richard Strauss’s opera with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, their sixth and last operatic collaboration.

Opening in a new production, the San Francisco Opera production is from Tim Albery, making his San Francisco debut. Albery designed it first for Santa Fe Opera in 2012. This was followed by a staging in 2013 by the Canadian Opera Company, and, then, most recently, in 2017, by Minnesota Opera. Described as “trivial hedonism, juxtaposed with war, hate, bigotry,” the new SFO production entertained overall but satisfied less.

Tobias Hoheisel, set designer and costumier, offered mute, monochromatic sets of greys, and, mostly black and white costumes, aiming for Viennese elegance that would enable us to focus on the opera’s multiple layers rather than simply its surface. The use of the central staircase served not only as successful transitional tool, but as a dramatic element in each act; it was particularly effective as was the lighting by David Finn.

Strauss & Hofmannsthal’s Perspective

In each of their operas, Strauss and Hofmannsthal aimed for such a multi-layered perspective and in each for a particular purpose. In “Arabella”  issues of how genuine relationship would survive lust, the craving for money, the demand for control and power, underpinned the action. While we sought to sink into the lush melodic sounds of Strauss’s score, we were kept on our toes by such questions punctuating von Hofmannsthal’s libretto; one did not go on without the other.

Further, in the six operas of the pair, the story and its explorations stayed centered in the character of a woman. Their heroines acted as sources of strength exuding courage and power; they showed wisdom and daring. We had Elektra, Salome, the Marschallin, Ariadne, Daphne, the Woman without a Shadow. None were flippertigibbets. Neither were they Brünnhildes, but, all, determined, energetic, vital, good or bad by normal conventional standards.

Arabella appeared first like a debutante fit for Viennese society, a coquette who turned away suitor after suitor; after, she doubted she would ever find a true love to whom she could give her heart. Counts Elemer, Dominik, Lamoral, sung to woo her as she wove her spell.

Not Quite Inhabiting The Part

Arabella, sung by soprano Ellie Dehn in her debut of the role, was one of the two daughters to Count and Countess Waldener, sung by Richard Paul Fink and Michaela Martens, respectively. It was she who managed not only to rescue her family from her father’s excessive gambling debts, but generate a noble conclusion by transforming her flirtatious behavior into genuine love when she agreed to marry Mandryka. In other words, she became a woman and family savior, a kind of flip side of an Elektra, without the sordid and tragic.

Dehn looked every inch the part, large hat, draping coat, bosomy blouses, and long skirts, and she played the role of a coquette with ease. Occasionally, she dazzled. As the more introspective young woman struck by genuine love, she wore the part rather than inhabited it. Long looks, pained expressions, somewhat stiff movements interfered with full conviction. She seemed statue rather than appeared just statuesque; she played a role rather than invested it with reality. While rooting for her happiness, while hearing her soaring voice, but not always with the clear articulation of those Germanic syllables, we did not feel authentic comfort in her commitment. A young debutante, yes,  but not yet a settled beloved, although singing duets with her sister, Zdenka, she came across more winningly.

With Gust

Zdenka/Zdenko, sung by soprano Heidi Stober, carried off her part with gusto. Her élan heightened scenes from the opening Act I bringing it out of the realm of conversation, i.e., Countess Adelaide and the Fortune-Teller, sung by Jill Grove, into activity and energy. She moved briskly and intelligently from upstage to down, from sofa to window, beyond which the “handsome stranger” stood, waiting to see the beautiful Arabella again. Zdenko/Zdenka, Heidi Stober bowed and she bent, performed with vitality and intelligence. When she aimed at Matteo, she showed thoughtfulness and feeling as well as sensuality; she loved him and although disguising these feelings as her male role allowed, she didn’t pose or belabor it. Her voice expressed her strength and hopefulness, and even her adoration of Arabella, which while coming close to eros, never crossed the line. The two sang their duets with melting lyricism, despite all the “sturm und drang.”

Settling In

Arabella’s Mandryka, baritone, Brian Mulligan, sang with energetic and round highs, however stiffly he moved. When he resorted to the broad gestures of handing Waldner, however, flaunting his billfold for him to help himself to much-needed cash; and when he scooped up the bouquets of roses at the coachman’s ball, then went on to sprinkle them on and around the guests, his playfulness convinced us all, and buoyed up the scene. So too when he stood between twin columns centerstage and sang a brisk patter that he animated with high energy. After this, Mulligan seemed to settle and relax, and more comfortably accommodate his role; but, although his voice continued to ring intermittently, the orchestra, under the chief conductor of the Dutch National Opera, Marc Albrecht, also in his SFO debut, overpowered him and frequently muffled his diction.

That prevailed in Matteo as well. Tenor Daniel Johansson, in his debut at SFO, defined his character often so broadly that we lost his words. However pleading he was to Zdenko, for Arabella, he did not rouse audience sympathy. Neither did Arabella’s two other suitors, Counts Lamoral, Elemer, and Dominik, played by Christian Pursell, Scott Quinn, who appeared interchangeable.

It was Hye Jung Lee as the Flakermilli, darting and sprinting around the stage as her piercing coloratura rose beyond the guest chorus, who fostered the Viennese excitement for which Strauss and Hofmannsthal aimed. She was like the bas-relief rising from a two-dimensional wall.

The San Francisco Orchestra of 67 under Albrecht offered Strauss’s rich score with enthusiasm, but it flagged at times. One could say the soaring quality kept its “hat on,” and we found ourselves looking for more. Still, the rising and falling arcs and the complexities of the instrumentation kept us tethered to what the composer intended. Indeed, the final duet between Mandryka and Arabella, sung with fastidious and almost other-worldly grace, showed itself a marked anomaly to today’s speed-dating world.

In SFO’s new production, we get a glimpse of the past, although we still crave more. That particular style of closure did send us out of the theater knowing we had not left Vienna but a simulation of the idea of it and a valiant attempt to show us what it had been.


ReviewsStage Reviews