Tim Albery’s production of Richard Strauss’ 1933 opera Arabella, first seen at Santa Fe in 2012, finally made it to Toronto last night. It’s, I believe, a Canadian premiere for the piece, which is a bit shocking for an important opera by a major composer. It’s not a perfect piece. The librettist, the incomparable Hugo von Hofmannsthal, died before he and Strauss could revise the second and third acts and there are places where it feels a bit unfinished but it’s still an impressive work. The plot’s a bit contrived perhaps, though no more so than many more famous operas, but there’s real depth of humanity and Mandryka, the landowner/tribal chief from the southern fringes of the Habsburg empire, is a really fascinating study.
Albery’s production shifts the time period from the 1860s to the 1910s, which in a Hapsburg/Viennese context really doesn’t change much of anything except perhaps some of the costumes. There’s no big concept. The action plays out with careful attention to the relationships between the characters. It’s an approach that works well enough for an opera that most of the audience won’t be familiar with but it’s hardly revelatory.
The performances of the major roles are all good. The star, I think, is Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka. He has a very big, stentorian baritone but is capable of projecting real emotion; not least when he’s silent and not moving. His distress at the apparent end of all his hopes in Act 3 and his contrition when he realises the mistake he has made are affecting and there’s more than a hint of the tribal chief who wrestles bears behind the ballroom facade. He’s well matched by the Arabella of Erin Wall. I think this is the best thing I’ve seen her do. The part lies nicely for her voice and allows her to sing quite beautifully at times. Her duets with Zdenka in Act 1 and Mandryka in Act 2 were surely the musical highlights of the night.
Jane Archibald was singing her first trouser role as Zdenka/o. She was really good. She convinced switching back and forth between male and female personas and sang beautifully when she got the chance. If the final denouement didn’t quite have the emotional impact it might I think we can blame the librettist’s early death rather than her performance. Michael Brandenburg’s Matteo was straightforward. I could have used a bit more swagger. Surely this role is, in a sense, a parody of the traditional Romantic Tenor and that didn’t really come through.
The standouts in the supporting cast were John Fanning, making a welcome return to the COC as the feckless Count Waldner and Claire de Sévigné, back from Zürich, as the Fiakermilli. Fanning’s performance was broadly comic but vocally sound and not without subtlety. De Sévigné looked stunning, navigated the ridiculous coloratura with apparent ease and was obviously having fun dominating the male guests at the ball.
This was Strauss so the performance of conductor and orchestra was critical. I really enjoyed Patrick Lange’s reading of the score. There are times, perhaps, where one feels that there’s one too many swelling Straussian melody lines but listen carefully and there’s always more detail, that figure in the woodwinds coming out of nowhere, and Lange points them up beautifully. The orchestra plays with sufficient precision for it to work. The chorus too was it’s usual disciplined self though it only really gets a look in in Act 2.
This is surely not the flashiest or most immediately accessible opera that will be seen in Toronto this season but it has pleasures aplenty for those prepared to listen and, who knows, we’ll probably have to wait another eighty years to see it again so best see it while you can. Richard Strauss’ Arabella is playing at the Four Seasons Centre until the 28th of October. Tickets are available at coc.ca.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper