Review: Dehn and Mulligan Illumine Albery’s Stylish “Arabella” – San Francisco Opera, October 16, 2018

The San Francisco Opera mounted British director Tim Albery’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Arabella”, first presented at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012. My review of the Albery production’s 2012 debut in Santa Fe [Erin Wall, Mark Delavan Are Superb in Elegant New Production of “Arabella” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2012] contains many of my thoughts about the opera and production.

The core subject of the opera is the blossoming romance between the Viennese debutante Arabella, only acknowledged daughter of a downwardly mobile low-rank noble family, and the very wealthy, but unsophisticated, Croatian landowner, Mandryka. That romance must weather the storm created by an outrageous subplot, but in the end, love prevails and wealth triumphs over poverty.

Ellie Dehn’s Arabella

Minnesota soprano Ellie Dehn was an elegant Arabella.  Dehn’s vocal control makes her a superb choice for the principal soprano roles of Mozart operas [A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013] and her lyrical expressiveness for the French romantic repertory [Review: An Exquisitely Sung “Manon” with Ellie Dehn and Michael Fabiano – San Francisco Opera, November 4, 2017.] Control and lyricism are qualities essential to success as Arabella, and Dehn’s performance was praiseworthy.

[Below: Ellie Dehn as Arabella; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Brian Mulligan’s Mandryka

As her Mandryka, Dehn was reunited with New York baritone Brian Mulligan, whose previous pairing as Musetta and Marcello explored the tempestuous relationship of Puccini’s battling lovers [Review: Crocetto, Berrugi, Dehn, Mulligan Star in Well-sung, Intelligently-Acted “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 15, 2014].

[Below: Mandryka (Brian Mulligan, left) and Arabella (Ellie Dehn, right) have fallen in love with each other; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Mulligan has triumphed in memorably portraying a range of operatic characters as diverse as Roderick Usher [Review: Brian Mulligan’s Bravura Performance in Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher” – San Francisco Opera, December 13, 2015], John Proctor [Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016] and Sweeney Todd [Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015].

Mulligan’s sturdy baritone and soulful acting assured an appealing Mandryka.

[Below: Brian Mullligan as Mandryka; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Heidi Stober’s Zdenko/Zdenka

Wisconsin soprano Heidi Stober is the only artist to have participated in the first performances of this production (at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012). Playing Zdenko is unlike playing a musico role in which a woman is portraying a man. The musico artist is performing a character who psychologically regards himself as male and whom all of the opera’s other characters agree is a male.

In “Arabella”, the title character’s younger sister, for the convenience of the family and the social advancement of Arabella, has been required to dress and act as a boy, Zdenko.

Zdenko cannot be considered a musico role. The librettist (Hugo von Hofmannsthal) writing in the late 1920s likely considered this quite indefensible enforced gender dysphoria as simply a plot device, but there is a underlying cruelty in the construction of this character. By today’s standards, Zdenko acts villainously towards Matteo (in a “no means no” world, one doesn’t entrap a person in a sexual encounter that the person never would have agreed to) even if Hofmannsthal posited Zdenko’s motives as decently motivated.

Stober has found the way to bring plausibility and a tasteful presentation to a flawed character. As in every role she sings, her lyric soprano voice sounded beautifully.

[Below: Heidi Stober is Zdenka, here dressed as Zdenko; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Daniel Johansson Matteo

Swedish tenor Daniel Johansson made his San Francisco Opera debut and his role debut as the soldier Matteo, who becomes the victim of Zdenko’s ill-conceived attempt to advance Matteo’s pursuit of Arabella’s hand in marriage.

[Below: Matteo (Daniel Johansson) expresses anger and dismay at discovering that the woman whom he thought he had made passionate love to the previous evening was instead a different person whom he thought was her brother; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Johansson comes to San Francisco with an impressive repertory of Wagner jugendlicher and Italian and French spinto tenor roles. With his successful debut as the hapless Matteo, I look forward to further performances in the larger roles for which he is known.

Richard Paul Fink’s Count Waldner 

Ohio bass-baritone Richard Paul Fink’s robust voice and intelligent acting makes him an invaluable resource for character roles as diverse as Wozzeck [“Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011] and the High Priest of Dagon [Review: A Power House Dallas Opera “Samson” with Borodina, Forbis, Fink – October 25, 2017].

Fink’s Count Waldner was totally believable, if his character was ultimately dislikable.

[Below: RIchard Paul Fink as Count Waldner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Michaela Martens’ Countess Adelaide Waldner, Hye Jung Lee’s Fiakermilli and Other Cast Members

This is the third Richard Strauss “mother” role in which I’ve seen New York mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens perform, including Herodias in “Salome” in the 2015 Santa Fe Opera and Klytemnestra in “Elektra” [Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” – Goerke, Pieczonka in a Gory, Gloriously Sung Night at the Museum – September 9, 2017].

Even though Adelaide is not as lethal a personality as Herodias or Klytemnestra, she enables her husband’s gambling habit.  She is a superstitious woman, and a dangerous one to entrust to the pyschological wellbeing of two daughters. Adelaide insists that Arabella must marry for wealth while  she strongly encourages Zdenka to disguise herself as a boy, so as not to impose on the family’s financial resources.

Martens possesses the vocal resources required of each these dislikable mothers and the acting ability to project their personalities plausibly.

[Below: Countess Adelaide Waldner (Michaela Martens, right) has her cards read by a Fortune-Teller (Jill Groves, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Texas mezzo-soprano Jill Grove has centered her career in the variety of character roles that lie in the mezzo repertory. Prominent in San Francisco Opera’s season opening double bill [Review, Part I: San Francisco Opera Season Opening “Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci”, Nicely Sung, Brilliantly Staged, September 7, 2018], in “Arabella” she sings the brief role of the Fortune-Teller who, for a price, provides Adelaide with hopeful news.

South Korean coloratura soprano Hye Jung-Lee was a vivacious Fiakermilli (a character associated with Vienna’s horse-drawn fiakers or hansom cabs) – a guest at the Waldner’s party for Arabella.

[Below: Hye Jung-Lee is the Fiakermilli; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Texas tenor Scott Quinn was Count Elemer, Michigan baritone Andrew Manea was Count Dominik and California bass-baritone Christian Pursell was Count Lamoral.

San Francisco Opera Choristers Anders Frohlich, Jere Torkelsen, Chster Piddick and Alan Cochran were respectively, Welko, Djura, a Waiter and Jankel.

Maestro Marc Albrecht and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, presided over by German Maestro Marc Albrecht, making his American conducting debut, brilliantly performed Strauss’ rich, densely melodic orchestration.

[Below: Maestro Marc Albrecht; edited image, based on a Marco Borggreve photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The San Francisco Opera Chorus, directed by Scottish director Ian Robertson, sparkled in the party scenes.

TIm Albery’s Production and Tobias Hoheisel’s Sets and Costumes

British director Tim Albery transferred the time of “Arabella” from the mid-19th century to the first decade of the 20th (prior to the Great War and contemporaneous with some of the memorable scenes of the BBC series Downton Abbey).

[Below: Tobias Hoheisel’s Act II sets for Richard Strauss’ “Arabella”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Tobias Hoheisel’s sets and costumes captured the essence of a family who strived for status in early 20th century Viennese society.

[Below: Tobias Hoheisel’s Act III sets for Richard Strauss’ “Arabella”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I recommend the cast, production and musical performance of “Arabella”, especially for admirers of Richard Strauss’ later operas.