Arabella in Essen

Notwithstanding some glorious music, the Strauss/Hofmannstahl opera Arabella is a problematic piece. For a start, plausibility is stretched beyond breaking-point by the heroine’s sister Zdenka being dressed as a boy because her parents cannot afford to find a suitable husband for a second daughter. Then the comic elements, including notably Arabella’s three suitors, and the Count and Countess seeking out pleasure compatible with their poverty, seem to stand uneasily with the more serious dimensions of the work, the nature of female ambitions and desire.  Guy Joosten, invited by the Essen Opera to stage the piece, did not convincingly resolve these issues: the comic episodes suffered from excessive, and rather unfunny, caricature; and except for a novel ending (Arabella and her lover Mandryka are not united) the moral core is not satisfactorily explored.

On the positive side, Strauss’s extravagant score was superbly served by Tomas Netopil and the Essen Philharmonie. In the title role Jessica Muirhead, the company’s leading soprano for several years, was vocally supreme, glowingly relishing the high-lying lyrical phrases so typical of the composer and she expertly used the music’s line and colour to enhance the drama. Julia Grüter, as Zdenka, was no less impressive. The purity of her voice, combined with its penetrating character, underpinned her characterisation: a wilfulness necessary to overcome her frustrating predicament. She was well matched by Thomas Paul whose powerful tenor made more of Matteo than is usually encountered. It was a pity that Heiko Trinsinger who was dramatically effective as Mandryka, fetchingly costumed as if returning from an Arctic expedition, could not maintain the necessary baritonal warmth and lyricism throughout a long evening. As the parental couple, Christoph Seidl and Bettina Ranch lapsed into caricature but sung convincingly.