Which opera by Richard Strauss has a text by Hoffmannsthal, a big soprano monologue to end act one, an important transvestite role and waltzes galore? Trick question, but the answer is not Der Rosenkavalier but Arabella, 16 years younger, premiere in 1955 in troubled times. The Nazis interfered with the production and Strauss's choice of conductor. The crits were mostly anti, pointing out the obvious similarities. However, there are many choice moments even though Act Two is not a bad time to have dinner. You would then miss the pallid waltzes that lack the charm and memorability of the earlier opera. Though it would be a pity to miss the duet at the beginng of the act, between Arabella and Mandryka, der richtige mann (Mr Right). But the first and third acts contain the best music: the fortune teller's at the very beginning where the orchestra fizzes about and Mandryka's aria where the Croatian country-man talks about his life and forests in the backwoods.. .and his wealth, offering his wallet to Arabella's father, Count Waldemer, who is a bad gambler and has come to Vienna to try to restore his fortune by a good marriage for his elder daughter, Arabella (to save money ? her sister has to pretend to be a man); Mandryka memorably says to the Count: "Teschek, bedien dich" - help yourself, mate. The best music, as so in often with Strauss, comes in the closing scene when Arabella descends the staircase of the hotel (where the family is lodging) holding out a glass of water to Mandryka (an old Croatian betrothal custom).
Admittedly there are many passages where the composer scores too busily and the tunes are mostly not vintage Strauss, Hoffmansthal (the poor man died before the premiere) was taking a risk with a second Viennese comedy. It needs a really good production to paper over the cracks. And this it had in the Sydney Opera where I was present at the first night, March 7. In charge of the stage was John Cox, veteran master-Strauss director with many successful productions at Glyndebourne. This Arabella was as near perfect a production as you will ever see. Overall and in detail it was the tops.
And sharing the honours was Robert Perdziola, once again aiding by creating wonderful costumes and settings. How Richard Hickox manages to produce such wonderful sounds and playing from his orchestra is a bit of a wonder when his technique seems to be what orchestral players term 'a box of down beats'. One cannot help thinking that a more fluid and linear style might produce even better results. Still, he has just celebrated his 60th birthday and signed up for another five years with Opera Australia, so let's just say "Bravo and Happy Birthday" and leave it at that. The casting was good if not 100% ideal. Best was Peter Coleman-Wright, a natural for Mandryka. He has the range, a fine voice, acts superbly and copes with any extremes that Strauss chucks at him. His real-life wife Cheryl Barker makes a pleasing Arabella, looks fine , sings well and only lacks a little cream in the voice (that cream that Lisa della Casa had a'plenty, the Arabella one could dream about when she sang the role in 1953 in Covent Garden).
Emma Matthews made a fetching Zdenka , the sister in drag, although she is deficient in the rich middle voice that the part calls for, but she has musicality in spades. (Isn't it curious that the chorus, prominent in the ballroom scene Act Two, keeps mum. Might not singing improve the shining hour?). All in all it was an enjoyable evening and made one remember Neville Cardus writing that the 1955 revival at Covent Garden "proved that Strauss was the best person to write a Strauss opera".
The rumour is that the Sydney Opera House is going to close for the whole of 2010 to re-jig the interior according to the architect's original plans. For years now opera has been staged in the smaller of the two halls, the disadvantage being that the acoustic which is bad is not improved by the pit being open, with the result that the orchestra sounds too loud, forcing the singers to bellow to make themselves neard. If the rumour is true, roll on, 2010!