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Musically vibrant, visually subdued

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/05/2017 -  & October 10, 14, 18, 20, 22, 28, 2017
Richard Strauss: Arabella, opus 79
Erin Wall (Arabella), Tomasz Konieczny (Mandryka), Jane Archibald (Zdenka), Michael Brandenburg (Matteo), Gundula Hintz (Countess Adelaide), John Fanning (Count Waldner), Corey Bix (Count Elemer), Craig Irvin (Count Dominik), Bruno Roy (Count Lamoral), Claire de Sévigné (The Fiakermilli), Megan Latham (The Fortune Teller), Isaiah Bell (Hotel Porter), Geoffrey Sirett (Welko), Thomas Goerz (Djura), Ernesto Ramírez (Head Waiter)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, (Sandra Horst, chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Patrick Lange (conductor)
Tim Albery (director), Tobias Hoheisel (set and costume designer), David Finn (lighting designer)

E. Wall & T. Konieczny (© Michael Cooper)

There is much to enjoy in this production of Richard Strauss’s Arabella (a co-production previously seen in Santa Fe and St. Paul, Minnesota), although the first impression is one of pale tastefulness. The style is supposedly that of the era immediately prior to World War I when Vienna had gone through an expansive age with much distinctive design such as Jugendstil. Instead, what we see is a plain, gray set that looks unfinished.

There is a lot of gray in the costumes as well, with highlights of taupe. Poor Zdenka (disguised as Zdenko) almost blends in to the decor - how can he/she be taken for a footman while smothered in yards of stodgy tweed? A degree of visual vibrancy would be welcome given that the opening action has so many tentative moments before the various plot threads come into focus.

It must be said, though, that Erin Wall in the title role looks wonderful at her entrance in a glowing, creamy white coat - and her singing is an ideal match, especially in the many yearning, introspective moments. Also ideally cast is Jane Archibald as the lovelorn Zdenka, forced to pass as a boy, in love with the young officer, Matteo, who is madly in love with her sister and who is using “Zdenko” as a go-between. Got that?

(And later on Zdenka uses the “bed trick” to lure Matteo into bed after convincing him the assignation will be with Arabella. Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal borrowed this gambit from Shakespeare, who used it in two plays, one of which, Measure for Measure, was adapted by Wagner as Das Liebesverbot. The libretto also features a stock character, the impecunious aristocrat. Still, while Hofmannsthal used proven dramatic devices he created an amusing original work that shows us people achieving a new level of self-awareness.)

The work truly comes alive with the arrival of the surprise suitor, Mandryka, a bumptious, wealthy “peasant” with gentlemanly instincts. Tomasz Konieczny (making his North American debut here) is surely one of the definitive performers of this role. He has the maturity of voice and artistry but also manages to look and move nimbly like a man who is 30-ish (all too many Mandrykas look old enough to be Arabella’s father and this doesn’t work.)

Unfortunately two singers fall short: Michael Brandenburg is usually inaudible as Matteo, and John Fanning is a very faded Count Waldner, Arabella’s father. Gundula Hintz, on the other hand, is a vivid Countess Adelaide, and it is interesting that the staging calls our attention to her welcoming the attentions of Count Dominik, one of Arabella’s castoff suitors. Corey Bix makes a fine impression as Count Elemer, and Megan Latham establishes a vivid vignette as the Fortune Teller. (A little joke that doesn’t quite register is that the fortune teller’s confusing prophesies in the opening scene eventually come true. This comes clear if you see the opera a second time.)

Perhaps the most fiendish role is that of the Fiakermilli, whose challenging (or cruel) tessitura is achieved by Claire de Sévigné without shrieking. This is a true accomplishment! (She looks great as well.)

Patrick Lange leads the orchestra’s 59 players with striking attention to detail, caressing the music at appropriate moments and jolting it dramatically when needed. The horns excel in those distinctively Straussian dreamlike moments.

It’s a long wait for the climactic kiss and it certainly makes a very nice moment. There is much to delight the ear, if less so the eye, in what, in the end, is a worthy presentation of a problematic work.

Michael Johnson



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