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Strauss' Arabella: As Confusing As It Is Beautiful

July 20, 2012 - OperaPulse

By Erica Miner | Published on Jul 20, 2012

In their legendary nineteen-year collaboration, Richard Strauss and Hugo Von Hoffmannsthal always looked back on Der Rosenkavalier as their happiest work together. Arabella, a latecomer in their partnership, wastheir sixth and final operatic collaboration. Many possible reasons exist as to why this beautifully written, engaging work with its sweeping score is infrequently performed.

Strauss's Salome was called a Succès de Scandale by the press in 1905 for its controversial subject matter, harsh dissonances and murderous, explicitly erotic themes. Arabella enjoyed no such notoriety at its premiere in Dresden in 1933, with Strauss's (supposed) favorite soprano, Viorica Ursuleac in the title role; and the opera, with Eleanor Steber in the lead, was not performed at the Met until 1955.

Perhaps Arabella owes its neglect to the complicated and confusing plot, based on a 1909 Hoffmannsthal short story with Freudian undertones, which revolves around economic distress and a lone glass of water; or to its huge roster of characters that resembles a cast list for a World War II epic feature film.

I personally have always had a fond spot for this opera, not only because I am enamored of its beautiful score but also because from the pit, in the 1983 Met production, I was able to watch the luminous Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Bernd Weikl in top form. (Not to mention Kathleen Battle dressed as a male.)

Among the many female roles in this opera, that of Arabella is the most noteworthy, and one of the most vocally stunning that Strauss created in his long career. Psychologically speaking, because of her sexually repressed nature and fear of intimacy, Arabella could be viewed as a hysterical woman in the classically Freudian sense. Strauss, whose own family was psychologically dysfunctional to the extreme, felt a fascination for the theory that such hysteria sprang from a problematic family dynamic.

The subject of soprano roles registers conflict in Strauss folklore. Viorica Ursuleac notwithstanding some say Strauss's fascinating but eccentric wife Pauline inspired him to create the gorgeous, soaring melodies with the characteristic lyricism for which he is so universally recognized, for the sopranos in his operas. Others maintain that since she presented seemingly endless challenges for her long-suffering husband, the difficulties of the vocal writing reflects Strauss's pressing desire to get back at Pauline for being so difficult and irascible.

According to Met Opera mezzo Victoria Livengood, who makes her Santa Fe Opera debut as Arabella's mother Adelaide in the new production premiering Sat., July 28, Strauss's female roles are tough musically but "written beautifully for the voices and very singable.' She finds some of Arabella's music "breathtakingly beautiful,' adding that playing Strauss mothers written for mature mezzos is "dreamy.'

Hoffmannsthal and Strauss had had their differences in the years leading up to their final collaboration. The writer had tried to guide the composer away from  psychologically oriented plot lines toward more philosophical and even otherworldly symbolism, while Strauss's greatest desire was to create a  comedy set in Vienna with a relatable female character at its core: i.e. a second Rosenkavalier. One can only imagine how the story of Arabella might have turned out had not Hoffmannsthal tragically died (this month marks the 83rdanniversary of his passing) before he could revise the text. Desolate at the loss of his longtime artistic partner, Strauss put aside any conflicts he may have had with his librettist and persevered in setting the unrevised version of the text, though he was so overwhelmed with grief that it took him three years to finish the score.

In fairness to the plot, it may be timelier than it appears on the surface: the rocky path to true love always has relevance. Still, the old-world marriage-arranging methods that drive the plot forward seem antiquated and beside the point in our contemporary culture; and Arabella's insensitive, money hungry family would likely be considered especially onerous. Her father's gambling addiction has led to the family's loss of fortunes (bailout, anyone?), and her mother Adelaide has a Nancy Reagan-type proclivity to consult psychics – in this case, fortunetellers – to manage her life choices.

Ms. Livengood says Adelaide's role is "more conversational and helps promote the story line… closer to Herodias in terms of vocal challenges', but interesting dramatically because she's "quite hysterical most of the time.' She's also central in setting up relationships, starting in the opera's very first scene with the fortune teller. "The score suggests the turning of the cards... and helps me set up the mood and my character immediately.' After another scene establishing her relationship with her gambling husband comes "a lot of listening and reacting… you really do have to know everyone's roles and what is being said every second.' She adds that the Santa Fe sets are "stunning', the cast is "a dream of talented people' and everyone, from Director Tim Albery to Maestro Sir Andrew Davis, has been "fantastic.'

Upon closer inspection, the realities of modern life might also dictate certain necessities similar to that which Arabella's family faces, such as encouraging a romantic-minded young girl to find love with a man of means. In the present economic climate, many families keenly feel these pressures. In modern romantic comedies, we find such heroines "relatable.' Consequently the title character, ambivalent at the many suitors pursuing her but not at all pleased with the paltry choices open to her socially, evokes feelings both sympathetic and empathetic. And the notion of Mr. Right, as ambiguous as it may be, is an ongoing discussion in the opera. It's true that Mandryka, Arabella's eventual life partner, has chosen her based on a picture; but by the same token Tamino behaved similarly in Magic Flute.

Thus despite undercurrents of sexism and certain other foibles of its characters, Arabella remains a captivating, lushly orchestrated work, perhaps best understood from a psychoanalytic point of view.

As to that crucial glass of water, it makes perfect sense as a convincing plot device. Here in Southern California the importance of "liquid gold" is not taken lightly.

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