Arabella, the eponymous heroine of Richard Strauss’s comic opera is looking for love. She is a poor little rich girl seeking a ‘master’ to whom she will be ‘as obedient as a child’ and a firm believer in the notion of ‘Mr. Right’. Her parents alas have other plans for her, namely that she be sold to the highest bidder in order to rescue the families floundering fortunes by means of a profitable marriage. Count Waldner, Arabella’s gambling father who is responsible for their financial demise, sends a picture of Arabella to a decrepit old army friend in the hope of snaring a wealthy husband for his maiden daughter. Fortunately for our heroine the old goat has long gone and the picture ends up in the hands of his wealthy young nephew Mandryka. This ‘prince charming’ character, having been attacked by an over enthusiastic bear and unable to get out of bed for three months, spends the entire time dreaming about the girl in the picture before heading off to Vienna to claim her as his bride.
Arabella is very much a story of fantasy versus reality and Opera Australia’s production of this lesser known Strauss masterpiece has done a good job at presenting these themes. Act one opens with Arabella’s mother (Milijana Nikolic) bemoaning the family’s imminent bankruptcy and Arabella’s sister Zdenka (Emma Mathews) who has been dressed as a boy since childhood to avoid the cost of two marriages, urging Arabella (Cheryl Barker) to accept Matteo (Richard Roberts), a young officer, in marriage. All of the singing in these opening scenes is extremely good, as is the acting which brings out the humour of the plot. Miss Barker is a confident and poised Arabella and sings with a beautiful warm voice and wonderful legato line. She is easily heard above the orchestra thanks to sensitive leadership from conductor Richard Hickox and her intonation and diction are outstanding. Emma Matthews, who is a very good actress, sings with her usual creamy tone and is thoroughly convincing in this pants role; if it weren’t for the beautiful soprano voice you could be forgiven for thinking Zdenka is in fact male. Count Waldner (Conal Coad) portrays a humorous character who is more interested in gambling than most things in life and his solid bass voice and acting add to the overall success and humour of the first act. With the arrival of the handsome Mandryka (Peter Coleman-Wright), who comes to ask for Arabella’s hand in marriage, the audience has the pleasure of hearing a mighty and beautiful voice and it’s no wonder Arabella falls head over heels when they finally meet in the second act! Waldner consents immediately to the marriage and by accepting money from Mandryka makes the connection between matrimony and cash all too obvious.
Act two sees the first meeting between Arabella and Mandryka at the Cabbies’ Ball and they fall instantly in love. Whilst the speed at which this happens is troubling, the wonderful music and singing more than make up for problems inherent in the plot. The stage design is simple and attractive and the small chorus comes and goes without detracting from the focus of the action. The duet between Mandryka and Arabella with its soaring lyrical themes and luscious harmonies is a highlight of the opera; Arabella has found her life partner and Mandryka the great beauty he has fantasized about for months. From this point on however the fairy tale begins to unravel. Arabella takes leave of her other suitors who are now disappointed that she has chosen another man. Matteo is particularly stung and Zdenka, who is secretly in love with him, seizes the opportunity to have him for herself. She gives the heartbroken fool a letter, supposedly from Arabella but which she has in fact written, inviting him to her room and even providing him with the key (her key). Mandryka, who has witnessed all this and thinks Arabella is untrue, flies into a jealous rage and immediately starts flirting with Fiakermilli (Lorina Gore), the cabaret artiste from the ball. He then insults Arabella’s mother and the act draws to a troubling close. Miss Gore as Fiakermilli sings with commitment and precision and is a highlight of the second act. She has a clear light coloratura voice which cuts across the orchestra like a knife and her flirtatious acting is completely charming.
Act three deals with Zdenka’s coming out as a woman and Mandryka and Arabella’s reconciliation. Matteo, who has made love to Zdenka thinking it was Arabella (that room must have been dark!) is shocked by Arabella’s sudden coldness towards him. He is also shocked when he discovers that he has in fact just slept with Zdenka whom he thought was Zdenko, his best friend, but gets over this in about two minutes and decides that he now wants to marry Zdenka and not Arabella! The confusion is great as is Mandryka’s refusal to believe that Arabella is innocent of betraying him. Once he realizes what a fool he has been he curses himself and his failure to trust Arabella. His great remorse is relieved however when Arabella forgives him and in agreeing to marry him fulfils the fairy tale hope of living ‘happily ever after’. The singing in this act is once again splendid as is the acting and the opera draws to a satisfying conclusion. Arabella sings some of the loveliest music in the final moments of the piece and Miss Barker’s wonderfully even voice and warmth of tone are really worth hearing. She sings ‘Take me as I am’, meaning take me as I am and not as you imagine me to be and not as you think I ought to be, and there is a relevant message for all of us in these words today.
Although the plot of Arabella is convoluted and clichéd, Opera Australia has managed to create an attractive looking and successful production. The singing is consistently good throughout and the orchestra plays beautifully and without drowning out the singers. The acting is always believable and the singers, who are ideally suited to their roles both vocally and physically, portray believable characters. Whilst this production will not challenge you much, the quality of the music making definitely makes it worth a look.
Opera Australia presents
by Richard Strauss
Performed in German with English surtitles
Venue: Opera Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates/Times: March 7, 11, 18, 25 @ 7.30pm
Matinee: March 15 @ 1.00pm
Duration: 3 hours and 10 minutes including two 20-minute intervals
Free Opera Talks: March 11, 15 - 45 minutes before performances
Tickets: $65 - $246 | A children’s price of $50 is available for matinee performances only
Bookings: Opera Australia Ticket Services (02) 9318 8200 | Sydney Opera House (02) 9250 7777 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038