What is a genteel family with two daughters to do when it is too poor to launch them both into society? In Richard Strauss’ Arabella, the Waldners pass off their younger daughter as a son while trying to refind a rich husband for Arabella. Arabella believes in finding Mr Right and her sister Zdenka sacrifices her femininity for her family. These admirable qualities are rewarded when both sisters find love and the necessary cash.

Arabella © Monika Rittershaus
Arabella
© Monika Rittershaus

On the surface, Arabella is an innocuous comedy of manners set in the decadent Vienna of the 1860s. The opera premiered in Dresden in 1933, just months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, but its themes, love and money, are far removed from the turmoil in which it was conceived. At the same time, Strauss’ latticed score has a distinctly unsettled quality, featuring sung speech dotted with rhythmic bursts and restless waltzes. The title character, romantic but even-keeled, is the fixed point around which everyone else whirls and worries. Arabella, flirtatious and fully aware of the havoc she wreaks in men’s hearts, has a well-defined moral core and despises the hypocrisy around her. She shares these characteristics with Mandryka, in whom she recognises a kindred spirit.

Christof Loy moves the plot to an indeterminate 20th century, focusing on its undercurrent of angst. Framing the action in a clinically white, shallow box, Loy zooms in on the characters’ emotions as expressed in the libretto. Back panels slide open to reveal furnished spaces in neutral colours - the Waldners’ drab hotel rooms in Act I and a sumptuously lit ballroom in Act II. The singers interact in these spaces, but deliver reflective monologues and intimate duets against white backgrounds. By the end of Act III, when the young lovers’ feelings take the upper hand, the stage is completely bare. Herbert Murauer’s set and costumes are spare but rich in detail, such as Arabella’s wilted hairdo after she returns from the ball.

Meticulously directing the entire cast, Loy repeatedly punctures the sparkly veneer to expose the crudity beneath. Arabella’s gambling father, an eloquent and warm-voiced Alfred Reiter, quivers with anxiety. Count Elemer, Marcel Reijans in fine, ringing form, at first an eager admirer, quickly becomes physically intrusive. The contrast between appearance and reality is brilliantly showcased during the carnival ball, at which Arabella takes leave of her suitors and her girlhood. The guests arrive impeccably dressed but, by the end of the evening, droop all over the ballroom, drunk and dishevelled. The Coachmen’s Ball mascot, the Fiakermilli, serves as the abject symbol of this decadence. Susanne Elmark plays her as an addicted party girl, incisively delivering her frenetic coloratura. Even Mandryka, the provincial landowner lured to the frivolous capital by a photo of Arabella, becomes corrupted. Mistakenly thinking that Arabella has betrayed him, he does not just flirt with the Fiakermilli, but assaults her violently.

Marc Albrecht drew sweeping lyricism from the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra but, in keeping with Loy’s concept, emphasised the score’s anxious undertones. Albrecht paid great attention to the musical punctuation of the sung speech: horns snarled, bassoons guffawed, flutes spurted question marks into the air. The agitated passages were vigorously conducted, most notably the prelude to Act III, during which Matteo makes love to Zdenka, thinking she is Arabella.

Arabella © Monika Rittershaus
Arabella
© Monika Rittershaus

Tall and poised, Jacquelyn Wagner easily poured out Arabella’s flowing phrases and soaring arcs, her focused, platinum soprano gleaming brightest at the top. One would have welcomed more weight in the lower range and more textual expressiveness, but Wagner enchanted with her beautiful timbre in her Act I solo, “Mein Elemer!”, in which Arabella assesses her suitors, and her closing monologue, “Das was sehr gut, Mandryka”, when she formally seals her engagement by ritualistically handing Mandryka a glass of water.

Agneta Eichenholz was a superb Zdenka. With clear diction in the difficult parlando passages and effortless piercing top notes, she made a very believable young man and drew a moving portrait of Zdenka’s emotional conflicts. Will Hartmann’s plangent tenor was slightly strained during loud orchestral passages, but he was passionate as Matteo, her love interest.

James Rutherford brought vocal glamour to the burly, bear-hunting Mandryka. From his first lyrical outburst, bragging about his estate in “Der Onkel ist dahin”, his burnished baritone commanded the house. He was equally impressive in quieter moments, for instance, as the shame-faced lover in “Sie gibt mir keinen Blick” at the end of Act III. The combination of Rutherford’s powerful acting and his gorgeous voice made this a formidable performance.

The other supporting roles are strongly cast. The audience delightedly welcomed, after a long absence, Charlotte Margiono as Adelaide, Arabella’s superstitious, fluttery mother. Margiono has said farewell to her splendid soprano career, but her voice remains rich-toned and she is a compelling actress.

Elegant and disturbing, Loy’s strongly cast rethinking of this deceptively light-hearted work is not easy to forget.

****1