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SF Opera’s new ‘Arabella’ makes glowing impression

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Ellie Dehn and Brian Mulligan sing the lead roles in “Arabella.” (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

San Francisco Opera’s staging of Strauss’ “Arabella,” only the third time in its history, opened Tuesday evening in a charming, welcome production as new to the War Memorial Opera House as its talented director Tim Albery.

“Arabella” was the sixth and final collaboration between Strauss and his longtime librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who died, grief-stricken, only days after the suicide of his oldest son in 1929. Strauss left the libretto, adapted in part from Von Hofmannsthal’s short story “Lucidor,” largely intact, except that at the opera’s premiere in Dresden, Germany in 1933, it was set in 1860 Vienna rather than the 1910 Vienna of the story.

Albery (in a co-production of Santa Fe and Minnesota operas and Canadian Opera Company) restores the original 1910 setting from “Lucidor,” using elegant monochromatic sets and costumes by Tobias Hoheisel. Sensibly taming of some of the opera’s overly comic elements, Albery’s tasteful production keeps focus on the skilled cast and the work’s lovely Straussian lyricism.

Two sisters from the aristocratic-but-broke Waldner family are at the center of the plot; its eponymous protagonist is played by clear-voiced soprano Ellie Dehn. Though Arabella may be short on finances, she’s not short on stature, beauty or, consequently, suitors; Dehn sounds good and looks particularly engaging in her ballroom finery.

Arabella’s younger and shorter sister Zdenka (splendid soprano Heidi Stober) is not only literally overshadowed by her taller sibling, but has to don male clothes and pretend she’s the Waldners’ son because her parents must concentrate meager resources on finding a husband for Arabella.

Far from passive, Zdenka has a secret hankering for the young officer Matteo (agreeable, attractive tenor Daniel Johansson in his SFO and role debut). Yet Matteo, who’s fond of Arabella, assumes Zdenka is his best friend Zdenko. Meanwhile, Zdenka, trying to win Matteo’s favor, unintentionally ignites the jealousy of Arabella’s favored suitor, wealthy out-of-towner Mandryka (baritone Brian Mulligan, appealingly resonant and pleasantly ursine).

Mandryka, who inherited his late uncle’s country estate, has come to Vienna to see Count Waldner, Arabella’s father (solid baritone Richard Paul Fink), after being smitten with a picture of Arabella the count sent to his uncle, an old army buddy.

Arabella and Mandryka meet and declare their love for each other at the Coachman’s Ball, where Arabella enjoys a final few moments of being single, and soprano Hye Jung Lee, as The Fiakermilli, impresses with her coloratura-laden cabaret act.

Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens as Countess Adelaide Waldner, the sisters’ mother, also provides a solid contribution.

Making his SFO debut, conductor Marc Albrecht leads the orchestra through a radiant, smart performance, while Ian Robertson’s chorus lends sonority to the Viennese festivities.

REVIEW
Arabella
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19, Oct. 24 and Nov. 3; 2 p.m. Oct. 28
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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