Friday, October 27, 2017

Arabella at the COC

We went to see the COC’s production Arabella at the Four Seasons Centre last Sunday afternoon (Oct. 22, 2017). The COC sends an email containing details of the performance and warnings to subscribers and I was especially glad to have had it on this occasion since it was the afternoon of the Waterfront Marathon.

Some people will find the story of this opera either silly or offensive. Count Waldner has gambled away the family fortune and he and his wife are auctioning off their beautiful eldest daughter, with her full knowledge, to wealthy suitors. While she ends up marrying the “man of her dreams”, her younger sister is set to marry a man who doesn’t love her and has just slept with her believing her to be Arabella!  

It is all too easy to criticize social norms of the past as we see often in contemporary media. Lacking historical and social context it can be difficult to understand attitudes and relationships of 90 years ago in a foreign country. Moreover, the libretto and opera date from 1929 and the opera is set in about 1860 so the librettist is satirizing Viennese society some 70 years earlier.

This opera, with a libretto by Strauss’s long-time collaborator von Hoffmannstal, is a play set to music rather than an opera in the conventional sense of a suite of pieces which outline a story, held together by recitative or other similar singing. This is the form of much German opera from Wagner onward. Some audiences, unfamiliar with this kind of opera, are put off by the dearth of stand-alone arias and ensembles.

Strauss operas, beginning with Rosenkavalier (1911), share a musical vocabulary with which I am familiar but I’d never heard Arabella. 

Erin Wall (Arabella) and Tomasz Konieczny (Mandryka)

I was entranced by the first act whose music is glorious and the next two acts were as good. Strauss wrote masterfully for voices, especially female voices, and was a brilliant orchestrator.

Unfortunately, the orchestra frequently covered the singers who became part of the musical texture rather than above it as one would expect. Whether the fault lies with Strauss or conductor Patrick Lange is difficult to know. The orchestral playing was excellent, as usual.

The singers were also very fine. Adelaide, sung by Gundula Hintz and John Fanning, a wonderful Count Waldner sang convincingly and were entertaining actors as well. Jane Archibald as Zdenka and Erin Wall in the title role were exceptional. Michael Brandenburg, as Matteo, has a sturdy, dependable tenor voice and provided appropriately melodramatic acting.

Tomasz Konieczny sang Mandryka, the romantic baritone role. He’s had a long career singing bass and bass-baritone roles, so this one is outside of his usual fach. He sang the numerous high F#s with authority but his highest notes are uncovered and a little shouty, unlike the rest of his voice.

There’s but one performance of this run left on Sat. October 28. The production has few faults and we’re not likely to see this piece presented again in these part for a long time. If you like Rosenkavalier, you’ll certainly like Arabella.

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