Anyone who's been hanging around the Santa Fe Opera for any length of time has heard, until quite recently, a really terrific amount of Richard Strauss. (A friend asseverates, ruefully, that she's probably seen more Salomes than any other opera.) From that first season's Ariadne auf Naxos through its 2007 Daphne, the last Strauss venture here, the company developed an international reputation as a Strauss-haus under the auspices of its notoriously smitten founder and general director, John Crosby.
Back in the day, it took an impresario like Crosby to, nearly single-handedly, rescue Strauss from the condescension of a majority of critics who would banish the composer to the repertory’s outer dimness. (Strauss himself famously boasted, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.”) The only operas presently missing from the Strauss canon at SFO are his early Guntram and the intimidating Frau ohne Schatten. And just to dispel persistent rumors about Crosby’s own alleged timidity regarding the latter opera, years ago, he told me that he’d had a Frau almost ready to produce except for finding adequate covers for the demanding major roles.
But as of last Saturday: welcome home, Mr. Strauss. The Arabella that just opened, radiantly sung and emotionally touching, reminds us again how seductive and insightful Strauss can be when offered a production as gracefully nuanced as this one.
We knew that Erin Wall was born to sing the Strauss heroines; that became clear from her incandescent portrayal of Daphne five years ago. And, simply put, her Arabella soars. The character could be seen (and sometimes is seen by her sister, Zdenka, and her assorted suitors) as aloof and cold. Not with Wall's embrace of the role and her golden-hued projection of Strauss' heartfelt vocal line.
The composer’s homages to Mozart are well-known. In the closing pages of Arabella, he borrows the critical moment from Le nozze di Figaro: Countess Almaviva’s forgiveness of her wayward count. Now it is Arabella who must forgive the cruel insinuations of her fiancé, Mandryka. Wall does so, with the delicacy and intelligence that mark her portrayal of this complex heroine.
Mark Delavan makes a large-voiced, bearish Mandryka, although his loutishness in Act 2 would make it hard for anyone except Arabella to forgive him. In the unconvincingly trousered role of Zdenka, Heidi Stober is a model of stylish grace. Her Act 1 duet with Arabella deserves an ovation.
Taking the thankless part of Matteo, Arabella's callow, lusty suitor, Zach Borichevsky's bright tenor made a good impression. Skillful, lightly comic touches were provided by Dale Travis as Graf Waldner; Victoria Livengood as his Adelaide; Brian Jagde as suitor-in-chief, Elemer; and Kiri Deonarine as the Fiakermilli.
Sharing top honors with Erin Wall is the ebullient conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, a consummate Straussian. His quicksilver, compelling Arabella is simply definitive. Every subtlety of the ravishing score, that sly reference to Don Juan included, emerges from the pit, enhancing and embellishing the splendid ensemble work onstage. And the SFO orchestra continues to be, this season, the finest I've heard here.
Stage director Tim Albery's conception of the action relishes directness and elegant simplicity, while showcasing the importance of the opera's "other" main character: slippery, worldly old Vienna itself. Tobias Hoheisel's marzipan-hued sets and sorbet-shaded costumes seem just right, recalling an old opera pal's tribute to any production he loved—"It's just edible."