While recordings of Arabella abound, operagoers could conceivably go years without actually seeing the piece performed. Compared to the frequency with which companies present Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Salome, Richard Strauss’s Arabella is an infrequently seen gem. In the hands of the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia, Strauss’s lyrical comedy of manners was polished to a gleam.

Corinne Winters and Sean Arnold © Paul Sirochman
Corinne Winters and Sean Arnold
© Paul Sirochman

In the event you are not familiar with their mission, the Academy of Vocal Arts is a premier training academy for the next generation of opera singers. Besides performing in venues in and around Philadelphia, within the Academy walls they have a small performance space called the Warden Theater, of roughly 150 seats, ideal for mounting lesser-seen shows that aren’t likely to attract the large crowds of the operas standard in the repertoire.

Arabella is Strauss’s sixth and last collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is the story of Arabella, the oldest daughter of the Waldners, a family facing financial ruin, whose prospects would greatly improve if Arabella were to marry a rich husband. Arabella wants to marry for love but when an adoring suitor, the nephew of her father’s close friend, unexpectedly appears in Act I, a future happy life together is no certainty. In fact, their future is nearly thwarted by hasty assumptions and one over-the-top deception.

Arabella is a wacky tale in spots, especially the plot points revolving around the Waldners’ younger daughter, Zdenka, who the mother has decided to dress as a boy (because the Waldners can’t afford to have two daughters out in society at one time) and is thought to be a boy (Zdenke) until the last act, when Zdenka dons a negligee and lures her crush into bed with her, removing all doubt. Though comically preposterous at times, it is refreshing to see an opera in which no one dies of consumption or is mistakenly or intentionally murdered but ends with young lovers who have every likelihood of living happily ever after instead.

The work also straddles an unusual marriage of 19th century romantic themes with 20th century early modern music, with one foot seemingly mired in each time period. Watching Arabella is like watching “Gone with the Wind” while listening to daring harmonies and thick washes of sound existing for their own beauty.

While the AVA’s Warden Theater has the advantage of offering an intimate opera-going experience, the tidy space essentially gives singers no place to hide. For this production, singers were also accompanied solely on piano, so there was no shrouding notes or registers by certain instruments or orchestrations. Every note was accessible for both enjoyment (and scrutiny) at all times.

It is worth mentioning, that the singers accepted into the AVA program (including alumnus James Valenti, the 2010 Tucker Award recipient) are in training for singing careers in world-class opera venues. Therefore, I’m happy to report no vocal hiding was necessary. In fact, they appeared to embrace the vocal challenges that presenting this (very) long opera laid at the footlights.

Fourth year resident artist Corinne Winters was perfection in the title role. This is the second time I’ve seen Winters perform in the past year. She also sang Hester Prynne on the afternoon I attended the AVA’s The Scarlet Letter last November. Singing Arabella puts any soprano through her paces, and Winters rose to the challenges inherent in the role. She has a crystal-clear tone complimented by a radiance and a conventional loveliness (right down to the trim waistline) that was a standard of beauty in the 1860s. As a performer, Winters has magnetism. The audience is drawn to her—whenever she’s on stage—and I fully expect to see her on more prominent stages before too long. Other resident artists earning high honors for their solo performances include Chloé Moore as Arabella’s younger sister Zdenka and the young soldier Zdenka holds a torch for, Matteo, sung by Noah Van Niel, both of whom sang the same role for both casts.

Like other young artists’ programs, the AVA attracts the finest talent from the United States and around the world. All AVA productions are typically loaded with talented singers and potential talent. Each chorus number, which aggregates the greatest number of artists on stage at one time, is rich with sound and musicality.

The AVA makes the most of their niche in opera performance: Their on-site little theater space is perfect for offering lesser-done works; they embrace opportunities to mount premiere pieces such as Margaret Garwood’s The Scarlet Letter, also part of the 2010-11 season; and they channel many artists into shows produced by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The AVA has a noble mission—preparing the next generation of professional opera singers—and they are achieving remarkable results. Though their interpretations of operatic works tend toward the traditional, their production values are exceptional. AVA productions deserve to be seen and heard.

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