The San Francisco Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Arabella" is absolutely beautiful in every phase: music, singing, casting, and staging. It's set in Vienna in 1860. Nobody captures Viennese aristocracy better than Strauss and Hugo Von Hofmannsthal and this production shows them at the height of their powers. We open in the Waldner's hotel suite. It's all elegant carved marble, with sculptures, tall windows with lace curtains and heavy drapes. The Waldner's are living way above their means. Zdenka is disguised as a boy, because the family can't afford to introduce two girls into society at the same time. The mother is frantic as she tries to marry off the beautiful Arabella. In a gorgeous duet Arabella tells Zdenka how the man she loves has not appeared, but she saw an interesting stranger across from the hotel. Zdenka is advancing the cause of Matteo, with whom she is in love, but who is madly in love with Arabella. He thinks Zdenka is a boy, like everyone else, while she desperately tries to get him to stay around by forging letters from Arabella.
Act Two is set in a lavish ballroom. There are various staircases, and the set stretches to the back and is masterfully broken up into several rooms with a very grand effect. One room has a giant chandelier; there are columns, big doorways with heavy curtains. We have exquisite gowns and costumes. Arabella meets Mandryka, the stranger, and it's love at first sight as they stand transfixed in a rapturous duet. She goes to dance and say farewell to the suitors, while he overhears Zdenka give Arabella's key to Matteo, as she plans to rendezvous herself with him. Mandryka is outraged. He has ordered champagne for everyone, and stomps out of the ball, throwing a handful of money among the crowd, as a rosy glow envelopes the ballroom and sparkling golden confetti falls on the revelers from the ceiling. The third act takes place in the hotel lobby. We have the desk, with big windows looking into the garden. There is a big staircase with functional rooms at the top. Matteo emerges from one, after making love to Zdenka, who he thinks is Arabella. When he meets Arabella in the lobby she is like ice to him. All of the characters gradually assemble and fight, until Zdenka comes down and tells what happened. Mary Mills practically throbs for Matteo on the staircase. She's really spectacular as you feel her love all the way through, and it reaches it's climax here. Janice Watson is a gorgeous Arabella as she sings her final aria and duet with Mandryka, forgiving his doubts and looking forward to their new life together. Franz Grundheber's Mandryka, after passionately denouncing Arabella, then himself, smashes the water glass to symbolize the break from the past and commitment to the future. This, interestingly, is a Jewish custom which was written into the opera that premiered in 1933. This was the year that Hitler rose to power and solidified it with the Reichstag Fire, in much the same way as Newt Gingrich is using trumped up impeachment charges to remove the legally elected Clinton administration, and make himself President. Fritz Busch was forced to withdraw as conductor because of the new Nazi government and was replaced by Clemen Krauss in the premiere. Donald McIntyre is the father, a n'er do well gambler. This is only the second time that the San Francisco Opera has staged "Arabella." In some ways it may seem like a simplistic Rosenkavalier," but this opera is radiently beautiful in all of it's parts. The music and singing penetrates and bathes you in it's beauty in much the same way that "Parsifal" does in it's spirituality. Donald Runnicles conducts this totally satisfying production of Strauss' rarely performed masterpiece, "Arabella" continuing Thursday, October 1 and Sunday, October 4 at the San Francisco Opera.