Arts: Opera - Realism and romance

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The Independent Culture
ARABELLA IS Richard Strauss's "other" Viennese opera. The differences from its more famous predecessor are revealing. Der Rosenkavalier, I am tempted to say, could not have been written after 1914, not even by Strauss.

But in Arabella the Depression has hit Austria. The Waldners are respectable bourgeois who have fallen on hard times. They are living in a shabby hotel in Vienna, and have disguised their younger daughter, Zdenka, as a man, since they cannot afford a social season for two girls. Even the hotel will no longer provide drinks on credit. Retired Captain Waldner wastes his remaining money on gambling. Adelaide, his wife, consults fortune tellers.

So far, so plausible. The modest hotel of the first and last acts is convincingly evoked in Opera North's fine new production. But Arabella is an odd mix of social realism and Ruritanian romance. Arabella herself is courted by several eligible young men, but longs for Mr Right (der Richtige) to come along. And so he does, in the form of Mandryka, a Croatian landowner who, like Tamino, has fallen in love with her picture. There are awful misunderstandings en route, but all ends happily, for Zdenka as well as Arabella.

How, in 1999, do you stage an opera in which the heroine sings about Mr Right and, when he turns up, promises that "My lord and master you shall be"? The producer Francisco Negrin has responded to this by stressing the fairy-tale dimension. A fairy hovers over Act One, metamorphoses into the coloratura Fiakermilli in the second act, and briefly reappears in the final act.

Susannah Glanville's Arabella is so positive a figure, so full of vocal commitment and dramatic life, that submissiveness seems an unlikely future for her. She does not yet quite encompass vocally all the many moods of this rich character, but her acting is wonderful and her voice never tires. Her sister Zdenka gets a similarly passionate performance from the impressive Spanish soprano Isabel Monar - so much so that the relationship between the two sisters seems the most touching thing in the opera.

The casting was shrewd, and overall this was an evening of fine singing, accomplished acting and exuberant orchestral playing under Elgar Howarth. Richard Angas and Carole Wilson characterised the Waldner parents marvellously. Robert Hayward was a suitably diffident yet impetuous Mandryka, and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts a credible Matteo.

The two hotel acts come off well, especially the corridor mayhem of the last act. The Shrove Tuesday ball of the middle act is less convincing. There is too much recourse to those stock devices of theatrical revelry: standing on tables and scattering confetti. But Strauss and Hofmannsthal are to blame for some of its awkwardness, just as the singers are hardly to be blamed if many of their words are lost in the tide of orchestral colour. But overall it's a fresh, handsome show. Northern audiences have been starved of Strauss for too long.

`Arabella' tours to Manchester (tomorrow and Sat), then Nottingham, Newcastle and Leeds