Opera Review: 'Arabella' has a few snags

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By Melissa Riedel-Espinoza

Richard Strauss’ sixth collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “Arabella,” contains all of the lushness one expects to hear from Strauss and has character depth and an enjoyable story, as well.
The story, about a destitute Count who is trying to marry off his older daughter, has humor in it, but underneath the humor is a thick layer of social commentary.  Although not as popular as some of Strauss’ other operas, “Arabella” is charming and entertaining.
The orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, is the star of this show. They play Strauss’ music with gorgeous lines and expressiveness. The conductor brought out a wide range of colors from the pit that was, at times, more compelling than what was happening on the stage.
Erin Wall is a wonderful Arabella. She sang previously at the Santa Fe Opera, but this role seems to be a perfect fit for her. It is vocally demanding and she handles it with grace and ease.
Heidi Stober sings the role of Arabella’s sister, Zdenka/Zdenko. Her pure voice lends an air of innocence to her performance and her acting is superb. Stober shines in this role of the put-upon younger sister.
Mark Delavan, as Mandryka, a gruff peasant who comes to seek Arabella’s hand, is just as he should be. His mannerisms fit the character and his dark voice pairs nicely with the light fluidity in Wall’s voice.
The Count and Countess provide much of the comedy in the opera and Dale Travis and Victoria Livengood are a perfect pair. Their believability and expressiveness give fullness to their characters. Brian Jagde and Zach Borichevsky, as Count Elemer and Matteo, are both believably heartsick when making their pleas for Arabella’s love. Both men sing their roles well and are unique additions to the wide variety of vocal colors contained in this piece.
This opera is an aural experience. From Mandryka’s big, heavy baritone to Kiri Deonarine’s light coloratura in her role as the Fiakermilli, there is a broad range of vocal colors and types and that range is extended even further by the instruments playing in the orchestra pit. However, the visual element in this production is seriously lacking.
Arabella’s costumes are so unflattering it’s distracting. She looks so dowdy, it’s hard to imagine her being younger than 50, much less being on the brink of womanhood. In fact, in act two, she looks older than her mother. There are little punches of bright color, but the stage and costume combination is ineffective, especially as the night grows darker and the people’s faces start to blend in with the background. With these costumes, it’s hard to imagine Arabella finding one suitor, much less having men fight over her.
Overlooking the drab stage and questionable costumes, the music in “Arabella” is stunning, the story is entertaining and the singing (particularly Arabella and Zdenka’s duet in act one) is heavenly.
Anyone who enjoys lovely, flowing vocal lines, interesting texture and tonality and an outstanding orchestra will definitely want to attend the SFO’s “Arabella.”