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Toronto opera audience about to get first look at Arabella – and the Austrian idea

Erin Wall and Zach Borichevsky perform in the Santa Fe Opera production of Arabella in 2012.

Ken Howard

The last collaboration between composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arabella is, on first reading, a light piece with elements of operetta.

It is, however, marked by personal tragedy, the context of its making (1927-33 in Central Europe) and the dramatic challenges of an unfinished work. Toronto's opera audience is about to see its very first Arabella on Oct. 5, the Canadian Opera Company-Santa Fe Opera-Minnesota Opera co-production directed by Tim Albery.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal were working on a piece meant to repeat some of Der Rosenkavalier's success – soaring duos, a woman playing a man, a mytho-poetic Vienna and rich orchestration were all part of the formula – when on July 13, 1929, Hofmannsthal's older son took his own life.

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Two days later, Hofmannsthal himself died of a stroke. Strauss was inconsolable.

They had revised together only Act 1, but the composer, instead of continuing to revise on his own, decided to keep Acts 2 and 3 intact in honour of his friend.

The abrupt departure of Hofmannsthal remains visible in the piece, as many directors staging Arabella have realized since.

There is a tradition of cuts in Act 3 to make it more cogent, Albery explains when I meet him between rehearsals. He and the design team set the piece not in the 1860s but before the First World War. The era of changing mores and failing empires is the backdrop to the relationship intrigues out front. Arabella, Albery says, is primarily an "examination of the nature of love, and the tensions between what we want and what we can have from life – and what can happen when we want more than one thing at once."

Arabella (here Erin Wall) is the oldest daughter of a down-on-its-luck aristocratic family who must be urgently married off to a wealthy suitor.

The father (John Fanning will sing Count Waldner) is gambling away what's left of the family money, the mother, Adelaide (Gundula Hintz), is looking for guidance from fortune tellers and the younger sister, Zdenka (Jane Archibald), lives as a man because there's no money to bring up another daughter in Viennese high society.

Zdenka is in love with one of the suitors Arabella is rejecting, the young officer Matteo (Michael Brandenburg), and concocts a very operatic plan to get him to sleep with her.

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One could, Albery concedes, make Arabella much darker by drawing out some of its less savoury aspects.

"For example, the way these two daughters are treated is outrageous – abuse, in essence. But I don't think there are any real villains here. The parents are weak and inept people who are forced into a corner, and the daughters are strong and self-aware, no matter what the pressure they're under," Albery says.

What Arabella calls the right one does appear: Count Mandryka (Tomasz Konieczny) of the backwaters of Slavonia in Croatia, unsophisticated and un-Viennese, but forthright.

"The man who arrives to save her is a sort of fantasy vision: wealthy as well as coming from this country where things are pure and better – the opera plays with the trope of sophisticated but corrupt city and simpler but pure country living," Albery says.

He represents an image of what we all look for in a relationship: removal of masks and pretense, uncomplicated loyalty.

The time and geography of its creation Arabella might wear lightly, but cannot escape.

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Hofmannsthal was a key figure of early 20th-century modernism. He remains underacknowledged, much of his writing still overshadowed by the planetary successes of Strauss collaborations. The NYRB Classics' The Lord Chandos Letter: And Other Writings is his best-known translation in English, and Purdue University Press gathered his political pieces in a 2011 collection (Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian Idea: Selected Essays and Addresses, 1906-1927), which is a fascinating read, especially his notes on the idea of Europe and "the Austrian Idea," proposing a United States of Europe vision for the continent with openness to the East.

Literary historian Ana Foteva interprets Arabella as an expression of this vision: a social contract in which the Germanic, the Slav and the Latin element get it together rather elegantly. Matteo is an Italian name, Mandryka is from Slavonia actual and mythologized, Zdenka is a Slav name given to an Austrian. Viennese parochialism is opened up, women assert themselves and everybody finds the right person by the end of the opera.

Conductor Patrick Lange is not entirely sold on the idea of Arabella as a proto-European Union multicultural utopia. The merging of the Slav and the Germanic, however, is definitely in the score, he tells me when I meet him after the first orchestra rehearsal.

"Strauss explicitly marked the places in the score where he uses South Slav material for Mandryka. He takes and deconstructs Viennese waltzes, too," Lange says. "Hints of a waltz appear, but never a straight waltz beat. There are winks in the direction of Der Rosenkavalier. Many playful moments to be found."

I tell him that I recognized one of those Mandryka songs as Prodjoh kroz goru, which Montenegrin, Bosnian and Serb folk ensembles perform to this day.

"Those are still living songs? How interesting! But I do have some reservations about the Vienna-centric gaze on the outsider Mandryka," Lange says. "Vienna has always been the centre of the world for Vienna."

As one of the pre-eminent German conductors of the younger generation, Lange knows Vienna well and returns there annually for engagements at the Vienna State Opera.

"It's an amazing orchestra – and not the easiest of orchestras," he says.

"We have a good relationship now, seven years in, but for a new visiting conductor, it can be challenging."

There are no rehearsals at the Wiener Staatsoper; the orchestra knows the repertoire and the singers and conductors are presumed to have come prepared. Some will swim while others will sink.

"If you get one rehearsal, it can get even harder because the musicians you've rehearsed with will be replaced by another set of musicians in performance. Meeting the orchestra on the performance night is probably better.

They're playing 52 operas each season. They have no time to rehearse. But in live concert, they're really reacting, responding – if they like you," he laughs.

"When you go for it, there will be great moments of beauty. My first production there was a [Madama] Butterfly, and when I gave the downbeat, the strings just … blew me away. They all play on their Stradivarius violins, full bowing; it was incredible."

Lange knew he wanted to conduct by the age of 12. The boys' choir school (music director: Georg Ratzinger, brother of Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus) was followed by the studies at Wurzburg and Zurich.

His first break came when he became the assistant conductor with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Switzerland and Claudio Abbado's assistant. Berlin's Komische Oper and the post of chief conductor was another milestone. Freelance years took him to Covent Garden, Glyndebourne Festival on tour, Zurich, Vienna, Paris and Munich, and the COC for a Butterfly in 2014. He was recently appointed the music director of the Staatstheater Wiesbaden in Germany.

Where is home?

"Perhaps the apartment in Wiesbaden, but my family recently moved to Hamburg because my wife got a job there. We're between Wiesbaden and Hamburg. I'm also two months every year in Vienna, always in the same apartment, so that's another home base. I actually enjoy being at home in multiple places. Where is home? Right now, to be honest, I don't know."

Hofmannsthal would approve.

Arabella runs from Oct. 5 to 28 at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre (coc.ca).

New Toronto exhibit a ‘compression chamber for imagination’: Del Toro (The Canadian Press)
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