In the current production of Richard Strauss’ “Arabella’’ at San Francisco Opera, there is plenty of charm and rapturous singing, and stellar orchestral playing led by German conductor Marc Albrecht in his U.S. debut.
The opera is awkward dramatically, but it doesn’t promise to be a sequel to “Der Rosenkavalier.’’ Strauss’ music is of a piece and despite the narrative hitches, depicts the purest possible expression of romantic love in a leaner style that stays just clear of sentimentality.
Arabella is the daughter of a once-wealthy Viennese family fallen on hard times. She must marry for money to help her family, but as the story has it, Arabella and her fiance fall head over heels for each other, and things proceed.
Because of poet-librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s death — he died two days after his son committed suicide — the work was only partially revised. It needs a substantial narrative trim, but when in the third act, Arabella descends the staircase to engage with her chosen Mandryka, having been transformed from a fun-loving debutante to a world-wise woman, everything comes together and it is hard to find fault with much of anything.
Tim Albery’s production, updated from the 1860s to 1910, takes almost no notice of Vienna in its context, a time of decadence and upheaval. There is no suggestion of psychological probing or underlying eroticism, as is often the case, this is a romantic match between two recognizable human beings, and the Coachmen’s Ball at which Arabella and Mandryka meet, appears to be more like a country club outing than a gathering of swells in the early-20th century troubled, decadent city.
Even the Fiakermilli, a cabaret singer (spikily sung by Hye Jung Lee), who cavorts with Mandryka after Arabella leaves him, looks as if she wandered in from the dressage ring. Tobias Hoheisel’s simple settings and costumes in tones of grays spoke to the elegance of the day.
American soprano Ellie Dehn, in her first role as Arabella, sang with gleaming high notes. She is so commanding a vocal presence that when she is not onstage there is a noticeable lapse. The scene in which she leaves Mandryka and he hears about a possible tryst involving Arabella, seems interminable.
Brian Muligan’s muscular baritone and his restrained dramatic presence make him a credible partner for Dehn’s outgoing Arabella. There may not be a trace of erotic energy between them, that is left for younger sister Zdenka and Matteo, but the final scene between them generated plenty of electricity.
Mezzo-soprano Heidi Stober shined as Zdenka, the younger sister who has been raised as a boy for economy’s sake and is projected into a love affair. The the object of her affection, Matteo, one of Arabella’s suitors, was handsomely if overly bombastically sung by Daniel Johansson. Mezzo Michaela Martens and baritone Richard Paul Fink added comic flair to their parental roles as Countess and Count Waldner.
The final “Arabella’’ will be performed at the War Memorial Opera House on Nov. 3.
Top photo: Ellie Dehn and Daniel Johansson in “Arabella.” (Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)