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A Viennese Fairytale

Teatro Real
01/24/2023 -  & January 28, 31, February 3*, 6, 9, 12, 2023
Richard Strauss : Arabella, opus 79
Sara Jakubiak (Arabella), Sarah Defrise (Zdenka), Martin Winkler (Graf Waldner), Anne Sofie von Otter (Adelaide), Josef Wagner (Mandryka), Matthew Newlin (Matteo), Dean Power (Graf Elemer), Roger Smeets (Graf Dominik), Tyler Zimmerman (Graf Lamoral), Elena Sancho Pereg (Fiakermilli), Barbara Zechmeister (Kartenlegerin), José Manuel Montero (Ein Zimmerkellner), Benjamin Werth (Welko), Niall Fallon (Djura), Hanno Jusek (Jankel)
Coro Titular del Teatro Real (Coro Intermezzo), Andrés Máspero (chorus master), Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real (Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid), David Afkham (conductor)
Christof Loy (stage director), Herbert Murauer (sets & costumes), Reinhard Traub (lighting), Thomas Wilhelm (choreography)

S. Jakubiak (© Javier del Real/Teatro Real)

While the advance of time is inevitable, few are able to accept its progression, nor the subsequent changes to their surroundings. Many can identify with this statement, considering the often radical changes to their own societies, downfalls in their social standings or the decline of their nation’s power. Such was the predicament of the most talented and prolific composer-librettist team in operatic history, rivaled only by Mozart and Da Ponte. Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a major poet, novelist and playwright, was Richard Strauss’s librettist, collaborating on Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1928), and Arabella (written 1929; first performed 1933).

Von Hofmannsthal was the product of nineteenth century Vienna, capital of the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire, among the first European states to grant Jews full citizenship and rights. Though the son of a Christian Austrian mother and a Christian Austrian-Italian banker, von Hofmannsthal’s paternal grandfather was a Jewish tobacco merchant ennobled by the Austrian Emperor. Few are aware that it was Hugo von Hofmannsthal who in 1920 co‑founded the Salzburg Festival with theatre director Max Reinhardt.

Der Rosenkavalier, which Strauss & von Hofmannsthal wrote just before the outbreak of WWI, evokes with nostalgia the glorious epoch of the reign of Empress Maria Theresa (1717‑ 1780). Arabella, written just before the Nazi takeover of Germany and eventual annexation of Austria, evokes Vienna in the 1860s, capital of a slowly declining empire just before its defeat by Prussia in 1866, which marked the beginning of the end of the once glorious empire. Von Hofmannsthal confronted unpleasant changes in his surroundings at the time of writing by seeking comfort in the nostalgic past. Indeed, in Arabella, he laments the Hapsburg Empire’s multi‑ethnic nature by having Count Waldner’s second daughter have a Slavic name (Zdenka), by making Count Mandryka a Croat, and the young officer Matteo an Italian or a Galician, all credible in an empire that then included Austria, Hungary, Bohemia (present day Czech Republic), Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Serbia, Southern Poland, Western Ukraine, Western and Northern Romania, Northeastern Italy and tiny enclaves in Germany.

Arabella takes place in the Vienna of the 1860s. The only hope for the fallen Count and Countess Waldner, drowning in debt, is in the marriage of their older daughter Arabella to a very rich man. As they can’t afford to have two daughters, they rear their younger daughter Zdenka as a boy. Arabella has many suitors: Counts Elemer, Dominik and Lamoral, and a young officer, Matteo. Arabella enjoys the attention but feels none of her suitors is “the one.” Her sister Zdenka, disguised as Zdenko, is in love with the young officer Matteo and befriends him, acting as a messenger for a one‑sided love correspondence. Count Waldner, in a last ditch attempt, sends Arabella’s portrait to an ex‑comrade from his army days, Count Mandryka, a fabulously rich landowner from Slavonia (present day Croatia). Alas, old Count Mandryka has died and his young widowed nephew has inherited lands, wealth and title. He is smitten by Arabella’s portrait and voyages to Vienna in search of her. Not knowing who he is, Arabella sees him on the street and is moved by his gaze. She wonders if the stranger may be “the one.”

German stage director Christof Loy has an obvious understanding of and affinity for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s œuvre. The opera opens to a 1950s run‑down apartment rather than an 1860s one. One initially wondered the reason for the change of epoch and for the spartan and rather ugly sets and costumes, but it gradually became clear it was an attempt - and a successful one, at that - to lay bare the drama, expunging it from its kitsch association with marble staircases, biedermeier furniture and glitzy clutter that obfuscate the work’s essence.

Initially unappealing, the updated epoch impressed in the Carnival ball in Act II with Dior and Balmain 1950s dresses, evocative of Audrey Hepburn. Whether intentional or not, the character Arabella is the embodiment of the Hepburn feminine ideal: elegant and refined, yet natural, fragile and strong of character; capricious and insouciant, yet adorable. Indeed, this complex character may be the reason this masterpiece is rarely performed. In the 50s and 60s, only one singer, legendary Swiss soprano Lisa della Casa, could perfectly embody the role, with her radiant beauty, natural elegance and glorious lyric soprano. Other great lyric sopranos, including Anneliese Rothenberger, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Julia Varady, Anna Tomowa‑Sintow, Kiri Te Kanawa and Renée Fleming, attempted to portray Arabella, but most had little success and others with un succès d’estime. Few can render this destitute, carefree aristocrat Arabella adorable, when such insouciance in the face of dire circumstances is humanly impossible.

The success of this production was thanks to the intelligence of Christof Loy’s staging and the intrinsic radiance of American soprano Sara Jakubiak. Beyond the considerable beauty of her voice, she also enchanted with her natural elegance. She effortlessly conveyed the needed warmth in the Act I duet with her sister Zdenka/Zdenko, “Er ist der Richtige nicht für mich.” Her Act II duet “Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein” and the Act III final duet with Mandryka, “Das war gut, Mandryka,” conveyed a nobility of character and tenderness. In the opera’s finale, Jakubiak gave Mandryka a glass of water, as is the tradition in Slavonia to accept a marriage proposal. She is incandescent in that final duet. Her final words “ Ich kann nicht anders werden, nimm mich wie ich bin!” concisely expressed the essence of Arabella.

Austrian baritone Josef Wagner was a convincing Mandryka, boorish and unpolished, yet noble and somehow amiable. Such a nuanced portrayal is rare, hence the sparsity of performances of this glorious opera, especially outside Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Wagner’s virile voice stood out, blending perfectly with Jakubiak’s soprano. He was especially effective in the last act, in which he realizes his mistake in accusing Arabella of infidelity.

Belgian soprano Sarah Defrise was more than adequate as Zdenka/Zdenko. Her light lyric soprano blended superbly with Jakubiak in the Act I duet. Its limited colour was an excellent choice, contrasting with Arabella’s richer and more feminine soprano. However, she seemed strained by the end of the opera. Highly impressive as an actress, she was a credible boy throughout the opera. She was moved to tears in her final confession, having impersonated Arabella when she invited Matteo to her bed, in order to prevent the suicide of the lovesick young officer. Once she removed her boy’s clothes, she kept Zdenko’s pants down to her feet, thus restraining her movements. That was Christof Loy’s coup de maître as it made her shame that much more acute.

American tenor Matthew Newlin was the perfect Matteo, impetuous and foolhardy, yet, in the final act, capable of chivalry in his confused denial when everyone, himself included, believes he’d slept with Arabella on her last night of freedom. Few singers can exude such nobility in both their manner and expression. Tall, handsome and with abundant charisma, watch out for this young tenor.

Soprano Elena Sancho Pereg was the only Spaniard in this production. She was a competent Fiakermilli, the mascot of the Carnival Ball. This role is a clin d’œil to Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Sancho Pereg dazzled the audience with her high notes in this stratospheric role. Though cleaner high notes were expected, she showed herself to be an excellent actress, able to convey her irony about Viennese men and a certain ennui typical of the epoch.

Veteran Swedish mezzo Anne Sophie von Otter was a deluxe Countess Adelaide Waldner. Like most of the opera’s smaller roles, this role is parlato and there isn’t much demanding singing. However, it requires great acting skills and von Otter was phenomenal, perfectly capturing the superficial, downtrodden aristocrat. In a cruel touch, director Christof Loy had her respond to the advances of one her daughter’s suitors during the Carnival ball. Von Otter, without a hint of vulgarity but with a pinch of pathos, was able to imply that sexual intercourse had occurred offstage. This offended some, for the audience booed at the end of Act II. However, this was unwarranted, as the perspicacious stage director intended only to convey the degree of decadence and moral depravity of the epoch’s Viennese society.

Martin Winkler portrayed a wonderfully pathetic Count Waldner, this avid gambler and fallen aristocrat, with a resigned dignity. Of the three suitors, Count Elemer is the only one who really sings. American tenor Dean Power portrayed him well: aristocratic, but petty when rejected. Strauss had a penchant for making roles difficult for tenors, and this role was no different, requiring a dexterity in the upper register, and some of Power’s high notes were strained.

Thanks must be extended to conductor David Afkham who led the Teatro Real’s forces with panache and elegance, revealing the dense texture of Strauss’s music while elegantly supporting the singers, especially Jakubiak, in their gloriously pleasing art.

I spoke with a few opera‑lover friends in Madrid and overheard a few telling exchanges in the Teatro Real during both intermissions. The overwhelming consensus was that Arabella is the highlight of the season.

Ossama el Naggar



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