Arabella, Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire

A happy ending. For now...

A tale of romantic idealism and moral bankruptcy, Arabella hinges on the market value of a beautiful face. Set in a single evening, the opera follows the efforts of the profligate Count Waldner to find a rich husband for the elder of his two daughters and a fresh source of credit for his gambling habit. Arabella, on whose creamy shoulders her family's survival rests, dreams of Mr Right while juggling four Mr Wrongs. Her sister, Zdenka, is living as a boy because "no-one in Vienna can afford to have two daughters". Their mother, Adelaide, has meanwhile hocked the last of the family jewels.

Whether the Waldners' financial woes will strike a chord with the well-heeled clientele of Garsington Opera is anyone's guess. Since Fortnum and Mason are now supplying picnics here, it seems unlikely. Either way, director-designer David Fielding's light, elegant production should ease the pain. Though Strauss specified 1860, Fielding has set Arabella in the Sezession era. The set is monochrome - as are most of the costumes - with hints of sage green and plum, and astrological symbols that point to the predestined arrival of Arabella's Croatian rough diamond, Mandryka. Under the lights, and cleverly reversed for Act III's farcical dénouement, the Hotel Österreich is a chic address. In full sunlight, however, it looks to have been photocopied on a machine that is low on toner.

Though Arabella revisits several of the themes of Der Rosenkavalier and shares its tentatively ecstatic conclusion - like a kiss on a nasty graze - it has a darker and more desperate edge than Strauss's first Viennese comedy. The Waldner sisters are pawns in an unpleasant game, and for Zdenka, at least, their happy ending is less than secure. Surrounding them both is an atmosphere of panic and confusion. The opera was premiered in 1933: the year when Strauss, whose self-nurtured innocence seems in retrospect inconceivable, was forced to acknowledge the impact of the Nazi Party on his circle. His part-Jewish librettist Hofmannstahl, who described Vienna as "terrifying" before his death in 1929, was more politically astute. With little effort, the Fiakerball at the heart of the opera can be read as a metaphor for Europe on the brink of chaos: eating, drinking, and making merry in anticipation of annihilation.

Perhaps out of deference to the venue, Fielding underplays the tragic subtext of Arabella. Laughter is cheap at Garsington, and the Weimaresque gender-bending of Act III - personified by the platinum blonde dominatrix of Lorina Gore's Fiakermilli - played well on the first night. Raw lobsters aside, Fielding's incidental details are well-observed: the drowsy barman, the nosy bell-hop, and the sexually curious chambermaid. But Act II is underpopulated, Act III is overpopulated, and the principals have difficulty navigating the café furniture that should have been removed at the close of Act I. With the exception of Orla Boylan (a sincere and serene Arabella), their gestures look under-rehearsed. I'd have been happier had they looked at each other rather than their conductor, Elgar Howarth.

Urgent, humane, bittersweet and breathless, Howarth's Arabella is gloriously transparent of texture. The casting is interesting too, with Cora Burggraaf a gamine Zdenka (cast several years too early but immensely promising), Peter Coleman-Wright a suitably wild Mandryka, Stephen Richardson a bloated Waldner, and Daniel Norman a suave Elemer. Phyllis Cannan is a superb Adelaide, and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts makes an unnervingly excitable Matteo. My suspicion is that they get little back from the canopy, and all except Cannan and Boylan - who understand the capricious acoustics - tend to force their high notes. These are small problems that should be ironed out in subsequent performances.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

To 6 July, 01865 3616360

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