Richard Strauss: Arabella (1933)

Oper im drei Akten. Running Time 2 hours 30 minutes.

The one 20th century opera that has it ALL! Fortunetelling, het-cis-female drag kings (with confusing pronouns, and Czech names!), Viennese waltzes, unbridled soft-core sexual escapades with suicidally amourous tenor Italian army officers, jealous baritone Slavonian landlords, a coloratura soprano ball mascot, champagne flowing everywhere, horny young women wanting to find the ONE, living in a crazy hotel where people air out their sex scandals in the lobby in the middle of the night in front of all of Vienna, and trying to evade debt collectors (and underpaid bellboys), Arabella was the first Strauss opera I ever heard and, as G-d as my witness, for over twenty years since it has remained my personal favourite! This is also a review which I have been meaning to write for a very long time, probably even before I started this blog nearly six years ago. Yes it is overlong by about twenty minutes, and it has a plot so confusingly similar to a teenage boy’s wet dream Stanley Kubrick would not have known what to do with it, but it is nevertheless the operatic rarity which can be termed as fun as a rollercoaster ride!

Arabella also marked the sixth and final time Richard Strauss worked with the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In fact, von Hofmannsthal died in July 1929, shortly after having sent off the last addition to the libretto (which had been made at the request of Strauss), the monologue for Arabella at the end of act one, on the day of his son’s funeral. Strauss set about composing the music in 1930, the story being based on a 1910 novel by von Hofmannsthal, (which unlike much of his work, is devoid of dense symbolism) and had finished the score by October 1932. In March 1933, Strauss withdrew the score from its planned premiere in Dresden because of the Nazis replacing the scheduled conductor, but the opera house held the composer to his contract and the first performance was on 1 July, 1933. The initial reception of the work was cold, mostly because it was being compared to Der Rosenkavalier on which it is clearly designed as a sequel. Over the decades (because this opera is less than 90 years old as of writing). Arabella has become one of the most beloved and performed operas by Richard Strauss, and is considered to be his most romantic opera, if not his most modern, humane, and transparently scored.

SETTING: Vienna, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, 1860. Very complicated as there are 11 soloist singing roles and four speaking parts: Arabella (soprano) is the daughter of the retired calvary officer Count Waldner (bass) and his wife Adelaide (mezzo-soprano). Her brother Zdenko (soprano) is really her sister Zdenka, but in order to save money to keep Arabella in wonderful clothes in order to marry her off to some rich man, the younger sister is left to live the life of a boy. Arabella has many suitors including Count Elemer (tenor) who is taking her out of a sleigh ride before a grand ball that evening, but it is the amourous Italian officer Matteo (tenor) who is the most passionate. Arabella has no interest in him at all, but Zdenka has been writing letters to him as her sister because he has threatened to take his own life over Arabella. Meanwhile, Waldner is about to close a deal to marry Arabella to Mandryka (baritone), a Croatian landowner who is veddy rich and apparently has been seen by Arabella before although neither knows who the other is. That is all that you need to know in order to understand act one.

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ACT 1: A Viennese hotel room. (60 minutes)

0, 5: Die Karten fallen besser/Zdenko! Du, bist du allein? The opening fortunetelling scene ** starts off with a repetitive if mysterious theme (representing the tarot cards being used) as the soprano Fortuneteller and Adelaide embark on a lot of exposition and Zdenko acts as door guard for various bill collectors. Eventually it comes out that Zdenko is really Zdenka and that the reason for the ruse is financial, also that Zdenka will in some way come between Arabella (her elder sister) and this mysterious man who owns a lot of forests who will ask for her hand in marriage. The Fortuneteller and Adelaide adjourn into her bedroom and Zdenka expresses her fear of never seeing Matteo again (because the family is planning on leaving, and he will probably commit suicide over Arabella, which would ruin her chances of finding a wealthy husband). Much of this is explained in the following scene between Zdenka and Matteo *. Zdenka is determined even to ruin herself to save her sis and Matteo (with whom she is very obviously in love).

10: Ich Danke, Fraulein! The entrance of Arabella is distinct from anything before it ** with its subdued clarinet in the background. It changes quickly however as she admires some flowers and Zdenka tells her that they were from Matteo, which causes her to reject them. She intercepts a half-written letter from Zdenka to Matteo and realizes that her sister is in love with the officer (why else would she protest so much for him?), and tells her sister to stop with the disguise and come out as a woman. Zdenka is disgusted with her sister, believing that women generally are horrid cold-hearted creatures, but Arabella reveals that her coolness to Matteo has everything to do with the fact that she does not want to lead him on falsely (implying that he isn’t husband material for her, but perfectly acceptable brother-in-law material).

15: Aber der Richtige One of the last reflection moments in the history of opera *** a duet for the two sisters set to what is vaguely How Dry Am I?. There is mutual respect, a remarkable tune (which is a recurring leitmotif in the score whenever Arabella talks about her romantic ideals, and some glorious (if historically late) dual soprano fireworks. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and you have to grab it fast (although the main tune pops up again in Arabella’s vocal line frequently enough). Count Elemer is arriving with his sleigh to take Arabella for a ride (get your mind out of the gutter, this is carnival and she has to make her choice of husband that very evening!). But, Arabella reveals to her sister, she saw a man in the hotel earlier from whom flowers would be most welcomed (is this mysterious stranger THE MAN?). Zdenka throws the flowers from Matteo at Arabella, telling her that her choice will seal their collective fates.

22: So triumphierend The bizarrely aggressive duet between Arabella and Elemer as they prepare to go off for the sleigh ride **. Apparently the three counts picked lots and he won, but tonight (as per articles signed by the three men) Arabella must choose one of them as her husband. She is not taken with this, although the situation provides a rather interesting instance in which the tenor, and NOT the soprano, in a Strauss opera is getting the better vocal part! Arabella eventually compromises, she will go, but Zdenko must chaperon, claiming that she will be downstairs in half an hour (this is actually close to accurate in literal time as the act has around 31 more minutes). Arabella looks out the window (to see the horses) but sees the man from earlier and exclaims. The Count returns home and goes into details with Adelaide about Mandryka (an old friend of his to whom he sent a letter and portrait of Arabella).

32: Es wast der letzt! Adelaide does not want her daughter to marry an old man, but has already pawned their last piece of jewelry (a green brooch) so it is either off to the castle of an old aunt or…gambling with some magic numbers? An dreadful (terrifying, not awful) musical climax *. Waldner learns that the hotel staff is not serving them anymore, but someone has sent up a calling card….Mandryka!

39: Wenn aber das die Folge wär gewesen Much of the initial conversation between Waldner and the younger (nephew) Mandryka is, frankly and no pun intended, dry. But eventually, as the younger man expresses his desire for Arabella, we finally get something rather grand and noble **. It has a second go, to a different tune, but is just as noble and grand. It also demonstrates how dumb he is, especially as he goes into a story of how he was tackled by a she-bear in the forest and ended up in bed with four broken ribs for twelve weeks, all the while staring at the portrait of Arabella. He then sold one (one!) of his forests to a Jewish man from Sisak (a city 35 miles Southeast of Zagreb) and it was turned into paper to raise funds so he (Mandryka) could collect Arabella in Vienna! There is another section for Mandryka which is brief but good and then he goes and Waldner rejoices over his sudden change of fortune. Zdenka returns and he goes off to change out some money given to him by Mandryka (she learns nothing from him as to what has just happened) or rather to lose it through gambling. She worries about Matteo again, believing that the family is still leaving tomorrow morning, so tonight is her last chance with the Italian! Matteo shows up briefly asking about the letter he was promised. Zdenko promises to deliver it either at the ball or later in his (Matteo) rooms.

51: Mein Elemer! The rest of the act consists almost entirely of a ten minute long mono-cant for Arabella *** in which she finally gets time to embark on some introspection. She briefly flirts with the idea that she might like Matteo after all, at least as a member of the family, hint. She goes through all of the suitors (some of whom we have not yet met but will in act two) but realizes that only the mysterious stranger really interests her. Her mind turns to the evening, when she will be Queen of the Ball! Zdenka finally returns fully dressed for the afternoon ride, and the sisters depart amid waltz strains as the curtain falls. Very effective.

ACT 2: The Coachman’s Ball, that evening. (46 minutes)

0: Das ist ein Engel The act opens immediately upon Mandryka exclaiming that Arabella (who has been fashionably late to her own ball) is an angel descending from heaven **. Waldner complains that Mandryka needs to stop clasping his hand so tightly or else he will not be able to play cards for days. Arabella seems to struggle with meeting Mandryka, and her mother asks if they should leave (already). The three suitors (Elemer, Dominik, and Lamoral) that Arabella has fawning over her attempt to break her conversation with Mandryka, and quickly fail.

4: Ich habe eine Frau Mandryka tells Arabella about, his late wife. (What an ice breaker! Tell me again, did you sail on the Titanic?). The oboe is effective here as he goes over how his wife died two years into their marriage. It is not an aria exactly *, and Arabella is slightly confused as to why he is going over all of this background, but it is musically agreeable. They are interrupted once more by a suitor, Count Lamoral, who is quickly dispatched by Arabella. He reveals to her that he found her portrait (a miniature specifically) at his estate in Slavonia, which surprises her. He declares that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.

9, 12, 15: Sie wollen mich heiraten/In hoyte abend/Und du wurst main Gebiester sin Arabella attempts to humble her origins *, but Mandryka builds her up, saying that as his wife only the Emperor and Empress would be above them in status. This prompts Arabella to go into the first full iteration of her romantic theme song. Mandryka compares this to the Danube, and tells her of a Croatian custom, for a maiden to take a glass of water and present it to the man she has chosen to marry (this is both an important plot point for act three and the dead center point in the opera **. Arabella is astounded, to some extent, by how folksy this man is. Mandryka makes his avowal that where he is master, she will command, prompting a gorgeous duet melody *** as she declares her love for him. They kiss, and she goes off for one last hour of girlhood at the ball.

19: Die Wiener Herrn versteht sich auf die Astronomie The Fiakermilli (a coloratura soprano) provides the opera with its only true padding as she goes about sexing things up at the ball ** (while acknowledging the supremacy of Arabella, mostly). Coloratura fireworks, executed with skill.

22, 27, 30: Wo ist Arabella?/O Arabella, gibt es war Schoneres/Ein Feigning bin ich Strauss contrasts what plot development there is between Zdenka (who continues to defend Arabella the Indefensible) and Matteo (who threatens to shoot himself) with a conversation between Mandryka and Adelaide Waldner which borders almost on an unwanted proposal *. This is followed by probably the weakest moments of the opera, concerning mostly the ordering of alcoholic beverages and flowers as the ball rages on in the background. Arabella, meanwhile, takes each of her three suitors in turn for a final dance before dismissing them (with is the only plot development for nearly twenty minutes). First Dominik, who goes off in a huff from the orchestra. Elmer, having more character development, takes a bit longer to dismiss *. For Lamoral, Arabella is surprisingly more touching: kissing him on the forehead before taking leave of him. Instead of ruffly dismissing him like the other two, she is much more gentle, and expresses rather that she has found true love elsewhere **, so he too must go, but not before a last waltz. This is rather touching, even mildly bittersweet. Meanwhile, in the ongoing Matteo-Zdenko/a drama, Zdenko presents the soldier with a key from “Arabella” to her bedroom door while Mandryka overhears them, and assumes what they are saying is literally true, which of course the audience (and Zdenka) knows is not.

36, 40: Und wenn hier viele Arabella heissen/Herr von Mandryka, wo ist meine Tochter? Mandryka does not want to believe what he has heard **: perhaps there is more than one Arabella at the ball? He plans to present her with flowers. Meanwhile, Count Dominik is playing Adelaide hard in the ballroom (possibly out of revenge?). Mandryka decides to flirt with the Fiakermilli and get drunk before confronting Arabella with accusations of instant infidelity. He then embarks on an uneven vocal competition with Fiakermilli before Adelaide comes back asking where Arabella is **. It is obvious that Arabella has left the ball, which for Mandryka is proof that she is with Matteo. Count Waldner even asks Adelaide where their daughter is even though this is counterproductive. No one knows where Arabella is, so Mandryka accompanies the Count and Countess back to their hotel, while the three rejected suitors laugh off their rival and Fiakermilli coloraturas her way to the act curtain.

ACT 3: The Hotel Lobby (43 minutes)

0, 4, 6, 16: Uber seine Felder/Sie hier?/Ich gratuliete Ihnen The act begins with a five minute prelude *** which orchestrally depicts the love making of Zdenka and Matteo, which is either extremely passionate or one of the shortest sexual encounters in opera. It is broken off abruptly by Arabella, who floats in on some musical froth about carriage rides (where was she really?) ** before encounter Matteo who is still in a post-coital daze which gets rather explosive as she denies his assertions that they just had intimate relations with each other mere minutes ago **. Their conversation is a combination of his explosive amourous attentions (including a long held high B-flat) and her rebuffs and shocked comments. Things settle musically as the Count, Countess, and Mandryka arrive, which brings with it even more theatrical drama. The Count questions his daughter, she tells him that nothing has happened that she is ashamed of. Mandryka does not believe her, which is the cause of most of the drama in the act until Zdenka shows up. There is a single musical highlight from Mandryka as he congratulates Matteo * for getting it on with Arabella (supposedly). He eventually ends up revealing a clue to Arabella (that he saw a boy give Matteo a key) and she starts to put the pieces together, very slowly, realizing that Matteo did in fact have intimate relations with a daughter of Count Waldner, but not with her!

20, 26: Papa! Mama! Zdenka is finally revealed, again saving Matteo from having to duel to the death with Mandryka **. She is going to throw herself into the Danube out of the obvious shame of having given up her maidenhead whilst unwed. Arabella is instantly magnanimous, partially because it produces an answer which clears her of any sexual misconduct. Realizing that Zdenka is actually female, has been in love with him all along, and they have just shared probably one of the most satisfying sexual encounters in all opera, Matteo immediately vows his undying love for her. Mandryka, meanwhile, can not forgive himself. Count Waldner challenges him, he apologizes to Arabella, not asking her forgiveness, but only stating his regret that he has foolishly cast her love aside at the first (false) rumor against her. Nevertheless, she forgives him (of course) ** in a lushly orchestrated passage. She convinces him to act as middle-man between her father and Matteo. Count Waldner is equally magnanimous and consents to Zdenka marrying Matteo that morning, Arabella declaring that her sister, long living as a boy, can now be happy and have the man she loves (telling her that he will come for her in the morning and she can have him for the rest of their lives). See, Arabella never had a problem with having Matteo in the family, just not as HER husband! She tells one of the servants to fetch her a glass of water from the well: all of these accusations of infidelity have made her thirsty. She goes upstairs to her chambers.

32, 36, 40: Sie gibt mir keinen Blick/Das war sehr gut, Mandryka/So wahr aus diesem The Playout is in three parts: 1) Mandryka is extremely hard on himself *, calling himself an idiot who doesn’t deserve anything other than probably punishment. Arabella returns, dressed in white, with the glass of water in her hand (the Croatian betrothal ritual, accompanied by a folk melody **). She presents him with the mandatory glass of water, but tells him that she would rather drink it herself, and forget what has just transpired, until dawn. But instead, she gives it to him, ending her girlhood and beginning their engagement. He takes the glass ***, drinking the water, then embraces her. One last time her love theme repeats: throughout any sorrow or pain, their love will last, so long as he loves her for who she is! They embrace, the orchestra swells to a mad-cap symphony as she runs back up the stairs, until tomorrow morning! Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This opera is musically just brilliant, and I agree with many that it is probably the most satisfactorily entertaining of all the Richard Strauss operas, although Charles Osborne did point out in The Complete Operas of Strauss that the early death of librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal did leave the structure of the libretto of the last two acts somewhat wanting. There are even moments in act two when Strauss himself seems to have run out of steam, but the overall musical contribution to the third act makes up for this. I would also make the claim that it can be difficult to relate to some of the characters depending on how one approaches them. Zdenka immediately gained my support as she is such an intuitive, warm, and self-sacrificing, sort of a Melanie Hamilton in trousers, and I started to see Arabella as a distant, cool character, the sort of great but catty woman Bette Davis would specialize in portraying in films only a couple of years later. Arabella might as well be Julie Marsden in Jezebel, someone you can admire and respect in the end in spite of her initial fickleness , but not altogether loveable, at least not to me. Musically, however, one can tell that Strauss loved her, and really that matters a whole lot more, certainly more than my initial opinion of her, which mellows almost into admiration as the opera unfolds. To some extent I would claim that given how late the opera is, 1933, the cinematic references some apply to it are warranted. By that point we were well into the sound era, this is in fact the first opera Strauss produced entirely in the sound era of film making, and there seems to be something of that (the naturalness of the comedic and dramatic elements) which might come from this (although there are traces of this in Intermezzo): as of writing the premiere of Arabella was not yet 90 years ago!

There are some incredulities in the plot: how could Matteo not realize, even in the dark, that he was having intimate relations with Zdenka and not Arabella? How is Zdenka able to fool everyone outside of her immediate family that she is a boy for so long? How awkward would it have been in 1860s Vienna for a family scandal involving an Italian officer, a Croatian landlord, a teenage socialite, and her cross-dressing sister/brother to be aired out in a hotel lobby in the wee hours of Ash Wednesday, especially in a county where sodomy was most certainly illegal, which must have crossed at least someone’s mind, would have been (ultimately falsely) suspected? But at the same time, what Strauss is doing here is also creating a new form of musical theatre (the usage of speaking roles and spoken dialogue) which contributes to the similarities between the opera and film, to some extent blurring the lines between stage and screen. The sexy prelude to act three (depicting the ravishing of Zdenka by Matteo) could even be a symphonic attempt at capturing the mood of a blue movie. I wish that productions could find a sensitive balance between Arabella and rationalizing her disinterest in Matteo and Zdenka and her obvious attraction to him to the point of sacrificing her virginity to save him from suicide (while contemplating her own out of shame for what she has allowed him to do to her). Usually the tenor is rather dowdy, making it difficult to define just what either woman sees in him. I identify with Matteo in some ways, and the Italian officer really could be a better acting opportunity if handled with care. It is obvious that Strauss at least looked upon their love making with some semblance of respect. Ironically, it is Zdenka’s sacrifice of her maiden virtue, initially seen as creating a greater problem (a soiled daughter whom no man other than her initial seducer can redeem) which actually solves the main problem of the opera! Matteo has a pre-existing relationship (a friendship) with Zdenka in her male-guise, which finds its fulfillment in the fact that they are heterosexually compatible (although hopefully Zdenka is only ashamed of having putting out before getting married and not because Matteo is sexually unsatisfactory, because that will only create more problems).

Mandryka is an awkward figure, but this is recognized in the libretto by everyone, excluding Arabella, who actually makes multiple apologies for him and even demeans her own family to him. It is never fully developed why exactly Arabella is so attracted to him, they seem like such complete opposites. Strauss also utilizes Slavonic folk melodies to support Mandryka, which does humanize him to a large extent, as he comes off as such a bumpkin.

And what is up with Adelaide getting so raunchy in act two with Count Dominik. And those odd comments between her and Mandryka that border into flirting? Both situations seem so random. This is part of what I consider to be the weaknesses in the opera, which occur in the last two acts. In act three, it is not so much a dramatic as a musical weakness as Arabella is subjected to a public show trial in the hotel lobby. For some reason, Strauss provides this ten minute long sequence with very little orchestral or melodic accompaniment which makes for good dramatic theatre but is lyrically a low point. The scene even eventually devolves into spoken dialogue towards the end before Zdenka finally appears and the act picks up, continuing to the final curtain.

The first act is comparatively well polished dramatically and musically, with musical sequences lasting generally around five minutes each in succession for a solid hour. The superiority of the first act makes the dramatic weaknesses, or rather their lack of the same polish, rather obvious.

The Fiakermilli is something of a theatrical conceit, and the only time when the opera starts to border into parody and derail dramatically into something resembling burlesque. But, in her own way, she is a demonstration of a strong point for Strauss (coloratura sopranos singing in waltz time) and she is used sparingly (two instances, around ten minutes in total, which is perfectly responsible). If anything, Fiakermilli is successful at providing comic relief in an opera which rather frequently brings up attempted suicide, despair, and the tortured anguish of love unrequited. Until act three when passionate, physical, love triumphs both musically and dramatically. Truly, the final curtain must be one of the most brilliant orchestral sections in 20th century opera, and a brilliant finish!

An alpha, of course.

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