OPERA NEWS - Arabella
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In Review > North America


San Francisco Opera

In Review SFO Arabella lg 119
Brian Mulligan and Ellie Dehn in Arabella at SFO
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

RICHARD STRAUSS'S  Arabella was overdue for revival at San Francisco Opera. With only two previous productions in the company’s history—one in 1980, one in 1998—Arabella made a welcome return on October 16, midway through the 2018 fall season. With sumptuous vocalism and German conductor Marc Albrecht making a forceful first U.S. appearance, Strauss’s opera registered as a cherished, long-lost friend.

With intelligent staging, strong musical direction and a cast capable of meeting its vocal demands, Arabella yields a keen mixture of Romantic fervor and psychological tension. Those elements came together eloquently in Tim Albery’s production, created for Santa Fe Opera in 2012. Albery moved the action from the 1860 Vienna specified in the libretto to 1910, emphasizing faded opulence in the face of impending war. The principal feature of designer Tobias Hoheisel’s set for the Act I hotel was a large curved staircase leading to the family’s upstairs quarters. In Act II, the staircase was repositioned, opening the stage for the gaiety of the revelers at the Cabbies’ Ball. David Finn’s lighting enhanced each scene.

Albery’s direction went a long way to clarifying the opera’s convoluted plot, in which Count Waldner’s compulsive gambling has all but ruined the prospects for Arabella and her younger sister, Zdenka. The hope is that an advantageous match for Arabella will revive the family’s fortunes; they have no similar hopes for Zdenka, who has been brought up as a boy, Zdenko, to save expenses. Hope arrives with the appearance of the wealthy Croatian landowner Mandryka, who has become enchanted with Arabella after seeing her image in a letter.

Ellie Dehn, singing her first Arabella, was splendid—regal in bearing and intelligent in her deliberations—and sang the role with clarity and fresh, expressive phrasing. Heidi Stober was a captivating Zdenka, her lithe instrument registering with yearning intensity. The two sopranos made their Act I duet, “Aber der Richtige,” a richly moving episode.

In his first Mandryka, Brian Mulligan was just as impressive. The baritone was convincing as the “country bumpkin” driven by desire for Arabella. His sturdy instrument produced dark, forceful streams of sound as he limned the character’s intentions in bold strokes. His Act II duet with Dehn, “Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein,” was the evening’s enveloping high point.

Baritone Richard Paul Fink, projecting with authority, made the conniving Count an insinuating presence, and mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens made the most of the scheming Countess Adelaide. As Matteo, Daniel Johansson cut a dashing figure, but his tenor sounded overmatched in the role’s upper reaches. Scott Quinn (Elemer), Andrew Manea (Dominik) and Christian Pursell (Lamoral) sang capably as Arabella’s other suitors. Soprano Hye Jung Lee offered a rather tame portrayal of the cabbies’ mascot, the Fiakermilli, but her exuberant coloratura was impeccable.

Albrecht drew an energized performance from the orchestra, eliciting a large measure of the beauty, urgency and Romantic lushness of Strauss’s score. He occasionally covered the singers, most notably at key moments in Act II, but this Arabella was a fine San Francisco Opera debut by the conductor. —Georgia Rowe

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