Canadian Opera Company’s Season Opener, Arabella: A comedy of errors with girls dressed as boys, mistaken identities, family scandal and trouble caused by the passing on of a key.
Not only is Richard Strauss’ Arabella (directed by Tim Albery) the season opener for the COC, it is also a company premiere of this particular piece.
Arabella is an insubstantial story in many ways. Taking the place of the usual operatic overture or prelude, here, the audience learns what’s going to happen at the beginning of the opera through a fortune teller. There aren’t many twists or turns to be found and the misunderstandings are quickly sorted out. The meat of this piece is in the music which is laced with a bright and silvery tone.
Set in 1930’s Vienna, Act I opens in the apartment of the Waldners. The aristocratic family, led by Count Waldner—a gambler, are raising two children—the beautiful Arabella and her younger sister Zdenka. Lacking the funds to pay their debts, nor certainly, the dowry that goes with marrying off a daughter, Zdenka goes through life pretending to be a boy known as Zdenko. We see from the very beginning a character full of empathy, with a sense of duty to do what she can for her family.
John Fanning is excellent as the gambling, yet comical Count Waldner. It’s a story of opposites though, as he comes across as funny, but it’s also clear that he will bankrupt his family even after marrying off his eldest to the wealthy Mandryka.
Matteo, one of Arabella’s list of suitors, is a thoroughly unlikable character—not because he’s evil, he’s simply annoying and prone to histrionics. He’s obsessed with Arabella to the point of threatening suicide should she not return his love. Unbeknownst to him, his best-friend Zdenko is a woman, secretly in love with him.
Erin Wall as Arabella is strong in voice and acting, but in Albery’s production, I didn’t find an Arabella who was concerned with much other than herself, until the final moments of the opera. The character is meant to have a beautiful, sympathetic bond with her younger sister, but I didn’t feel this here. It’s all rather unfortunate for the lonely Zdenka who has gone through life disguised as a boy, because her parents can’t afford to debut another daughter to society.
It was lovely to see Jane Archibald, the COC’s 2017/2018 Artist-in-Residence, on stage here as Zdenka/Zdenko. Operas by Strauss are wonderful vehicles for sopranos, allowing them to flex their voices with those soaring Straussian phrases. Here, neither Wall, nor Archibald disappoint. The singers share a gorgeous and lyrically tender duet about earnestly falling in love for the first time.
Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny provides a strong, assured voice as Arabella’s suitor Mandryka. Very romantic, he falls in love with Arabella the moment he sees her portrait.
Act II takes place at the ball where Mandryka and Arabella meet, and the two open themselves to one another quickly. He essentially tells her to “marry me and you will be my only love—I’ll place you above everything.” The night soon becomes a farewell to her girlhood and her former suitors.
Unfortunately, the sets and costuming by German designer Tobias Hoheisel fell flat and felt melancholy in their monochromatic greys. I had hoped that the staging would become more colorful in the second act for the big ball, and that Arabella would come out in something beautifully bright that would make her stand out as the true Queen of the Ball.
The Fiakermilli, the mascot of the Coachman’s ball, is sung and played to great effect by Claire de Sévigné. Her character is lively, sensual and fun and she delivers a crowd-pleasing, dazzling coloratura. The character is the only one throughout the entire production who was brightly, though simply, dressed.
Overall Arabella is very well done and makes for a light, enjoyable evening at the opera.
Arabella is on stage at the Four Seasons Centre until October 28. Please visit coc.ca for tickets and show times.