Opera audiences often have to suspend their disbelief, for example, when an overweight soprano sings one of those roles where the heroine is wasting away from tuberculosis. If the singer has the glorious voice of a Sutherland or Caballe, that’s enough. However, in the current production of “Arabella” at the Metropolitan Opera, the title character is portrayed by Swedish soprano Malin Bystrom, a singer as lovely in appearance as in sound.
This was the sixth and last collaboration between composer Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Described as “a lyric comedy in three acts,” the music is captivating while the plot turns often don’t make much sense. The opera had its premiere in Dresden in 1933.
Set in Vienna around 1860, the action begins in the Waldner’s hotel suite, where Countess Adelaide von Waldner is consulting a fortune teller. The family is in debt and the Countess is told that her daughter Arabella is going to marry a wealthy man but their other daughter is going to have problems. In one of the plot’s more absurd turns, the second child, Zdenka, is being raised as a boy named Zdenko, purportedly to save the family money. To add to the confusion, Zdenka is in love with Matteo, one of Arabella’s suitors. The girl has been sending him love letters in Arabella’s name.
Though Arabella has no problem attracting men, her father sent her photo to Mandryka, a wealthy old friend of his. A younger man appears, announcing that he is Mandryka, not the one Count Waldner sent the photo to but his nephew and heir. He has fallen in love with Arabella’s photo and wants to marry her. Coincidentally, the young woman had spotted him in the street and is intrigued.
The second act takes place at the Coachmen’s Ball. Arabella is introduced to Mandryka and recognizes him as the handsome stalker. He is a Croatian rustic and feels somewhat out of place in Viennese society but Arabella immediately falls in love with him. He reveals that he is a widower and tells her of a local custom in which a girl gives her future husband a glass of water. Arabella declares her intention to tie the knot with Mandryka but asks him to leave so she can bid farewell to her girlhood by dancing with her suitors.
Afterward, when Matteo begs Zdenka for proof of Arabella’s love, she arranges an assignation and hands him a key. Mandryka overhears the conversation and is shocked at what he thinks is Arabella’s unfaithfulness.
In the third act, Arabella runs into Matteo in the hotel lobby. He is under the impression that he just made love to her in a darkened room and can’t understand her distant attitude. Mandryka shows up and challenges Matteo to a duel. Zdenka rushes out in a nightgown and confesses that she masqueraded as her sister. She apparently was so successful that Matteo switches his affections to her. Mandryka thinks his jealous rage destroyed his relationship with Arabella but she hands him a glass of water, after which they presumably live happily ever after.
Otto Schenk’s 1983 production is conventional but still looks good. The audience applauded the set by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen when the curtain rose for the Act II ball scene.
Malin Bystrom was an enchanting Arabella. She managed to look fragile but produced a powerful sound, conveying the various emotions of the character. The most energetic performance was by baritone Michael Volle, making his debut as Mandyka. He looked a bit long in the tooth for the part but he handled the role’s volatile mood swings exceptionally well while producing a solid tone. Volle took what can be a tiresome part and made him compelling. Also notable was soprano Juliane Banse, also in her Met debut, as Zdena/Zdenko. Audrey Luna was charming as the flirtatious Fiakermilli, who crowns Arabella as the queen of the ball in Act II.
Conductor Philippe Auguin and the Met orchestra conveyed the beauty of the score.
“Arabella” runs intermittently through April 24 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000, metoperafamily.org.