Wednesday, January 17, 2018

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES – REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA AND ROUNDHOUSE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Royal Opera and Roundhouse have teamed up for an intriguing production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It is done at the Roundhouse and the shape of the theatre sets the tone, indeed shapes the entire production.

As its name indicates, The Roundhouse is a theatre in the round. The stage for The Return resembles a donut with the orchestra being placed in the hole. The action takes place on the perimeter of the donut of course as the singers make use of all the available space in the circle. The opera is sung in English and surtitles are displayed above the playing area.
 
The donut for the The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse. 
The use of a circular playing area provides for considerable mobility in an opera that can be quite static. With the orchestra being in the middle, it has a close relationship with the audience and provides a more intimate feel. There are no sets or props, of course, but the immediacy of the action makes up for that.

Monteverdi’s librettist Giacomo Badoaro uses a conventional retelling of the return of Ulysses as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Monteverdi included personifications of Human Frailty, Time, Fortune, Love and Minerva but their appearance in this production is mercifully short while a number of other deities have been deleted.

Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was scheduled to sing Penelope but she lost her voice several days before opening night and the role was sung by Australian mezze Caitlin Hulcup. Rice walked the role and Hulcup sang from the orchestra pit. The arrangement worked quite well partly because of the position of the orchestra. Hulcup appeared relaxed and she sang beautifully. She has some luscious low notes and a splendid midrange to deliver a fine Penelope if only vocally.

The cast of a dozen singers and a large chorus perform quite well but there is some unevenness in the singing. Baritone Roderick Williams sings the heroic if initially abused Ulysses who can only reveal himself in the last scenes as the powerful warrior and loving husband of Penelope.
 Ulysses and Minvera, Photo ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey
The youthful tenor Samuel Boden arrives on a bicycle built for two to sing the role of Telemachus. He has a delicate voice and made a fine son of our hero.

Mezzo Catherine Carby with a gold breastplate to inform us that she is the goddess of war Minerva exerts power – vocal and physical - and helps Telemachus. You can’t miss her.

As we all know, Penelope was besieged by a herd of suitors who wanted to replace the long-missing king. Monteverdi gives three samples of them: Tenor Nick Pritchard as Amphinomus, countertenor Tai Oney as Peisander and bass Davis Shipley as Antinous. The three baddies cover the main voice ranges and they all get their comeuppance. Monteverdi also adds Irus, a parasite, who has balloons stuffed under his clothes and looks like the Goodyear blimp. He is sung and acted well by tenor Stuart Jackson.

Ulysses has faithful servants such as the elderly and faithful Eurycleia (mezzo Susan Bickley), Eurymachus (tenor Andrew Tortise), the shepherd Eumaeus (tenor Mark Milhofer) and Melantho (soprano Francesca Chiejina). Except for the latter who plots to get one of the suiters, the rest are sympathetic figures.

The Orchestra of Early Opera Company conducted by Christian Curnym played with exemplary fluidity the music of Monteverdi. 

Director John Fulljames had his hands full trying to organize and direct movement around a moving circle. There was a certain fluidity to the movement of the singers but there were times when some entrances and exits were not clear. Still Fulljames deserves credit for doing well in a tough situation.

The costunes by Kimie Nakano were a grab-bag of clothes that seemed to belong to no era that I could recognize. The women wore mostly black skirts. The servants wore servant’s uniforms and the men struck me as wearing whatever they showed up in for the performance.

The translation by Christopher Cowell worked reasonably well with the usual limitation of trying to sing in English a libretto that was written in Italian.

In any event, this Return had mostly positive features and many unique ones that made for a very fine night at the opera.
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The Return of Ulysses  by Claudio Monteverdi opened on January 10 and will be performed eight times until January 20, 2018 at the at the Roundhouse, Camden London. www.roh.org.uk or www.roundhouse.org.uk

Sunday, January 14, 2018

RIGOLETTO – REVIEW OF DAVID McVICAR’S ORGY AT COVENT GARDEN

James Karas

Imagine Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Judge Roy Moore and a couple of dozen other sexual predators with women available to them in a milieu where they are the law unto themselves. The result would be an orgy where the men can use and abuse the women as if they were objects and discard them at will.

That describes the opening scene of Rigoletto as directed by David McVicar in a revival of his 2001 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. When the lights go on, a disheveled woman comes out holding her clothes against her body. She starts crying and we know that she has just been raped or at least sexually abused. We will soon learn that she is the daughter of the courtier Monterone in the court of the Duke of Mantua where an orgy is in progress. The predatory men chase woman, grab them sexually, simulate coitus and act in an animalistic manner that is as frightful as it is abhorrent.

The women’s breasts are exposed, one man is undressed completely and the courtiers crawl on all fours as if they are jackals. Rigoletto ridicules Monterone about his daughter’s and his humiliation. Monterone’s daughter on stage is McVicar’s invention and we will see her several times crouching on the floor and being abused by the pigs of Mantua. She is damaged goods and men can do whatever their animalism inspires and their imagination conceives.
Dimitri Platanias and cast of Rigoletto. Photo: Mark Douet
Rigoletto is about the Duke’s deformed court jester who amuses his lecherous employer by ridiculing the other courtiers. It is a bad job for a man who is hiding his beautiful daughter from the moral black hole of the court.

The production has an extraordinary cast that fulfills the vocal and emotional requirements of the opera to the hilt. Baritone Dimitri Platanias has a big voice that can express contempt and deep emotion with exceptional resonance. This Rigoletto, in addition to being hunchbacked, has crippled legs and needs two canes to hobble around the stage. He expresses his scorn and ridicule of the courtiers, his deep love of his daughter Gilda, his terror at being cursed and his hatred (a major gamut of emotions) with astonishing finesse and range.

Soprano Lucy Crowe as Gilda is the picture of beauty, innocence, indeed purity, with her blonde hair and simple but attractive white dress. No wonder the Duke says he is in love with her. Crowe matches those physical attributes with a clarion voice of splendor and luster.

Tenor Michael Fabiano as the Duke and chief predator is completely amoral and feels entitled to do whatever he wants with whoever he wants. Fabiano’s vocal power and strutting leave no doubt about the Duke’s abusive abilities. He has a strong voice that he commands like a fine-tuned instrument. A delight to the ears.
 Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile and Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto © Mark Douet
Bass Andrea Mastroni has a deep, sonorous voice quite becoming to a principled assassin who provides a public service. Well, sort of, but if you must hire one, go to him as Sparaficile but make sure his sister, the slutty Maddalena (well dome by Nadia Krasteva) is on holiday in Bulgaria.

The set by Michael Vale is in keeping with McVicar’s raunchy interpretation. The ducal palace looks more like a large steel shed. There is not a single indication of elegance or wealth let alone civilization. Sparafucile’s place of business is understandably grungy and his street office is logically in the down-market part of town.    

I should note that the revival director is Justin Way. Stats-crazy operaphiles, may want to know that McVicar’s 2001 production has been revived seven times. The most recent revival before the current one was in 2014.      

Alexander Joel led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a vigorous performance of the score in a richly thought out, nuanced and superb production of Verdi’s chestnut.

And if you don’t see this production, you will have to settle for lurid stories about American politicians, business executives and stars without the benefit of music, singing and a great night at the opera.
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Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave continues with some cast changes until January 16, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk

SALOME – REVIEW OF DAVID McVICAR’S PRODUCTION AT COVENT GARDEN

James Karas

The Royal Opera House has revived David McVicar’s 2008 production of Salome to good effect. McVicar shows originality, creativity and attention to detail that make established operas appear fresh and highly exciting.

The atmosphere of the current production done in modern dress (tuxedos, elegant gowns, khaki for the soldiers and traditional clothes for servants) ranges from a high-toned party thrown by Herod to the highly erotic and somewhat lewd atmosphere in the dungeon below where St. John the Baptist is guarded. More below.
 Michael Volle as Jokanaan, Malin Byström as Salome © ROH/Clive Barda
We get a glimpse of the posh affair situated at the top of the stage and reached by a grand staircase on our right. The dungeon has exposed cement walls and a steel cover over the cistern in which Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned. All of the action of the opera takes place in the dungeon, of course, but McVicar and Designer Ed Devlin want us to know of the decadent world of Tetrarch Herod and his cronies.

Swedish soprano Malin Byström who has made a name as a lyric soprano tackled the dramatic role of Salome with superlative results. Salome is disgusted by the leering of her stepfather Herod (John Daszak) who killed her father and is married to her mother. And she has developed a passion for the imprisoned John the Baptist. The more he rejects her, the more impassioned she becomes and expresses her unrequited love for him with ever-increasing ferocity. Byström has a plush and powerful voice and the ability to confront all these vocal and acting demands.

She gives a magnificent performance of the power of irrational love that has taken a grip over her. She agrees to dance for Herod provided he will give her whatever she wants. Here is the disappointing part of the evening. Malin Byström can’t dance. She runs across the stage, she twirls a veil and dances a few steps with Herod. Even imaginative video projections can’t hide the fact that she is not a good dancer and all we can do is settle for Strauss’s music. McVicar wants us to believe that this is a journey into Salome’s past and her troubled childhood that traumatized her. OK. Good try.
 Duncan Meadows as the Executioner and Malin Byström as Salome in Salome (ROH)© Clive Barda
Tenor John Daszak looked hormonally possessed and menacing as he tried to seduce Salome and was forced to promise “anything” to the more powerfully possessed Salome. The matronly and fine-voiced Herodias of Michaela Schuster suffered the double humiliation of being thrown over and for her daughter at that.

Powerhouse singing is required from the Baptist and Michael Volle provided the requisite vocal ammunition. Looking like a wild man, he heaps scorn on all the sinners who are not aware that the Son of God is on earth. He is especially vehement towards Salome which increases her obsession and the tension between the two. Volle dominates the stage when he is singing and makes a superb duo with Byström.

McVicar is attracted by the contrast between the coarse and the genteel. While the sophisticated party is going on above in Herod’s quarters, we see a nude woman in the dungeon who appears scantily dressed a number of times. There is an Executioner (Duncan Meadows) who looks like Atlas holding the world in his powerful hands and he is buck naked. All of which pales in comparison with the ultimate scene where Salome fulfils her sexual passion for the Baptist by kissing his severed head on the lips.

David Butt Philp sings a delicate Narraboth who is in love with Salome. Louise Armit sings the role of Herodias’s slave who is in love with Narraboth. They are small roles but McVicar makes the most of them.

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to great effect with Strauss’s commanding and very difficult music.
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Salome by Richard Strauss opened on January 8 and will be performed seven tomes until January 30, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk

Sunday, December 31, 2017

CANDIDE - REVIEW OF TORONTO OPERETTA THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre has tackled Candide, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. It is a tough piece to produce with its large cast, some difficult numbers and a fast-changing episodic structure but the result is highly commendable. 

The operetta is of course based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella which takes powerful satirical aim at the philosophy of optimism, war, the church, power, money and morality in general.

Candide (Tonatiuh Abrego) is a happy young man taught but his teacher Dr. Pangloss (Nicholas Borg) that he is living, in the words of the song, in “The Best Of All Possible Worlds” and everything happens for the good. That world comes crashing down when Candide is caught fooling around with The Baron’s (Edward Larocque) daughter Cunegonde (Vania Lisbeth Chan) and is thrown out of the castle by him.
 
Vania Lisbeth Chan, Elizabeth Beeler and Tonatiuh Abrego. Photo: Gary Beechey 
Candide, Cunegonde and Pangloss embark on an episodic journey that takes them across Europe to the New World and back. On the way they encounter, rape, murder, torture, massacres and immorality on a frightful scale.

Guillermo Silva Marin, the TOT’s General Director, gives us a fine-tuned production that moves effectively from one scene to the next and makes good use of the limited scenic resources.

Soprano Vania Lisbeth Chan does superb work as Cunegonde. She has a lovely and agile coloratura voice and gives us a perky and delightful Cunegonde. She has the tough but splendid aria “Glitter and be gay” to conquer with its high notes and flourishes and she handles it with aplomb.

Tenor Tonatiuh Abrego makes an innocent and attractive Candide with sound singing and stage presence.  Baritone Nicholas Borg plays Voltaire, Pangloss and Martin and takes advantage of displaying his vocal and acting abilities to good effect. He sings in a number of arias with other characters and does an especially good job in “Words! Words! Words!” as the pessimist Martin. Both Tonatiuh and Borg are young singers and we should be seeing much more of them in the future.
 Nicholas Borg as Pangloss, Tonatiuh Abrego as Candide and 
Patrick Bowman as Maximilian. Photo: Gary Beechey 
Soprano Elizabeth Beeler deserves credit for her verve and fine acting as The Old Lady. There are considerable demands on her vocal chords as well (“We Are Women,” “I am easily assimilated”) and she does respectable work.
There are quite a few issues with accents and enunciation as the main characters encounter people from other countries.           

The sixteen-member chorus used a number of soloists to fill its ranks and did rousing work despite some rough patches on the way.

The 13-member orchestra conducted by Derek Bate played with vigour under rough conditions. If you did not bother counting them. Their playing ability far outdid their numerical strength.

The operetta was done on pretty much a bare stage with a few props brought on as necessary. The set and lighting were designed by Silva-Marin.
           
Candide has gone through a large number of changes from the time it opened in 1956. Lillian Hellman wrote the book and Richard Wilbur did most of the lyrics for the original production with “other lyrics” by John Latouche and Dorothy Parker according to the first published version in 1957. Hellman and Bernstein also contributed lyrics. Later Hugh Wheeler wrote a new book replacing Hellman’s script and Stephen Sondheim added some lyrics.   

There are many brilliant spots in Candide but I find it difficult to love and in some cases even to warm up to the operetta. Be that as it may, I enjoyed TOT’s production.

Speaking of Toronto Operetta Theatre we can crib a phrase from the operetta and describe it as “the best operetta company in Toronto. The description applies but unfortunate TOT is also the ONLY operetta company in Toronto. (Go ahead correct me.) It is forced to perform in the small and inadequate Jane Mallett Theatre and that is no way to satisfy operetta lovers or build up an audience. Where is funding for the arts in a city that has pretentions to being a world-class cultural centre?    
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Candide by Leonard Bernstein opened on December 28, 2017 and will be performed six times until January 7, 2018 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912. www.torontooperetta.com

Monday, October 30, 2017

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

In a recent survey conducted by BBC Music Magazine “172 of the world’s finest opera singers” (according to BBC) chose The Marriage of Figaro as the greatest opera ever written.  Opera Atelier was not waiting for a survey to be  persuaded to revive its 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro but no one can possibly complain that it did.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has chosen to produce the opera in English and use Jeremy Sams’ fluid and colloquial translation. Excellent choices. Many directors move the date of an opera forward from today to some futuristic, robotic era. Pynkoski moves The Marriage back to the era and distinctive style of commedia dell’arte. The end  result is an outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera.
 
Peggy Kriha Dye (Countess Almaviva) and Stephen Hegedus (Count Almaviva). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Choosing the commedia dell’arte style has many advantages. It allows for comic business, including some slapstick that provides healthy laughter. The elegant costumes by Martha Mann and colourful sets by Gerard Gauci are perfect accompaniments for Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography. Thus we get the best of both worlds: the comic business of commedia dell’arte and the grace and sophistication of baroque.

Opera in English is still the exception and there are good reasons for being reluctant to indulge in full-scale Anglicized libretti. Jeremy Sams’ translation does illustrate some of the issues. The open vowels of “La vendetta” and the rounded o’s of “Dove sono” are not available in the English translation but some of the awkwardness we feel may be simply a matter of habit. If we heard The Marriage of Figaro, say, twenty times in Italian, hearing it in English may sound stranger than it really is. Try the reverse.  

Pynkoski has assembled a cast that can act and sing. Start with the heroes of the piece. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Figaro has to be wily, smart (but not as smart as his fiancée Susanna) and display vocal and physical agility. Williams delivers a delightful Figaro.

Soprano Mireille Asselin’s Susanna has intuitive intelligence, splendid vocal delivery and a marvelous comic delineation of the clever servant. Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye gives us a mature and moving Countess who married for love and lives with the Count’s gross infidelity. She sings her lament for lost love “Porgi, amor” (“Hear my prayer, humbly I beg you”) and “Dove Sono” (“I remember his love so tender”) where memory of past happiness and hopes for future joy and love blend gorgeously. I could have done with a bit less movement in the latter aria but that’s just quibbling.

Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus’s Count Almaviva is a jealous, quick-tempered and lithe Lothario for whom a skirt is a target and fidelity is a nuisance. We enjoy his singing and shenanigans and find extra pleasure in his ultimate comeuppance which provides a scene of forgiveness and redemption that becomes a moment of grace and enchantment.
 
Mireille Asselin (Susanna) and Douglas Williams (Figaro). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel was full of hormonal energy as Cherubino. Laura Pudwell as Marcellina, Gustav Andreassen as Bartolo, Olivier Laquerre as Antonio and Christopher Enns as Basilio and Don Curio delivered the comedy and singing assigned to them unfailingly. And Grace Lee as barbarian gets to sing the aria “I have lost it, I am so stupid” very effectively.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra does its usual fine work under the baton of David Fallis.

A few words to dampen your enthusiasm about The Marriage of Figaro being chosen as the greatest opera everLa Boheme came in second and Tosca placed sixth. Verdi sneaked in ninth place with Otello and Wagner made the grade with Tristan und Isolde in tenth place. Chacun à son goût, as they say, but those are head-scratching choices by any operatic measuring stick.

In any event, the highest accolade one can pay to Opera Atelier’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is that it is an expression of civilization. Kenneth Clark in his famous series Civilization said that he could not give a definition of civilization but he recognized it when he saw it. You may not be able to define a stunning and wonderful opera production but when you see this Marriage of Figaro you will recognize it. And it is civilized. 
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The Marriage of Figaro  by W. A. Mozart, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on October 26 and will until November 4, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com

Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE ELIXIR OF LOVE – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company serves us a delightful, delectable and delicious Elixir of Love with a strong Canadian flavor, scrumptious singing and most of it done by Canadians. More about the last bit further down.

Donizetti’s enchanting comedy requires five singers who must create and exude a sense of innocence, an atmosphere of geniality and a pleasant community that exists mostly in our imagination. Where can you find a place like that? Easy. Visit a small, rural town in southern Ontario on a sunny day before World War I. That is where director James Robinson sets this production. It all started in a small town in the United States but, there being no travel bans yet, they all moved to the friendlier realm of Canada. Well, Robinson changed the locale to Ontario.    
 
Simone Osborne as Adina (at left) with Gordon Bintner as Belcore 
and Andrew Haji as Nemorino (at right). Photo: Michael Cooper
Nemorino (Andrew Haji) has an ice cream truck and consumes what he sells with considerable generosity. But he is an innocent, lovable bumpkin who is love-struck with the very pretty Adina. His profession and girth, do not give him a head start in the race for Adina’s heart. Haji has a dulcet, light tenor voice and he conveys the innocence, ardour and total lovability of Nemorino perfectly.

Adina is rich, beautiful and flirtatious, the type of girl that any red-blooded Ontarian from Dundalk to Dorset would give up his acreage for. Soprano Simone Osborne embodies all the qualities we want to see in Adina and gives her an agile, honeyed voice that is an aural delight.

Sergeant Belcore is a swaggering, mustachioed recruiting officer in a well-pressed uniform that would burst at the seams if his ego were any bigger. Baritone Gordon Bintner’s voice resonates with confidence and we (almost) forgive Adina for falling for the cad.

Baritone Andrew Shore takes on the role of the quack Dr. Dulcamara who sells an elixir guaranteed to get you any woman. It is a fine comic role and Shore does a very good job in that regard. Unfortunately, he was in poor vocal form on the date that I saw the production (October 17), especially at the beginning. He was better near the end.

Soprano Laura Eberwein displayed her beautiful voice in the relatively small role of Giannetta and no doubt we will be seeing much more of her in the future.
 Andrew Haji as Nemorino in the The Elixir of Love, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
The opera is set, as I said, in a small town in Ontario. The set (designed by Allen Moyer) focuses on the town’s bandstand, decorated with banners and flags. The town people are dressed in festive attire of the period, the sun is shining and life is good. Is it July 1, 1914? We have a cheerful, happy atmosphere with the townspeople (the marvelous COC Chorus) providing a social milieu and vocal pleasure.

Yves Abel conducts the COC Orchestra.

One does not usually make too much fuss about the origins of the cast except perhaps to add, say, Russian or America before a singer’s name. There is a difference here. Most of the cast is young and Canadian. In fact the conductor and four of the five singers (Andrew Shore s the exception) are young Canadians. This is not pointless flag waving. It is a round of applause to the COC and in general for Canada for nurturing a crop of musical talent especially in opera, a form of entertainment that is struggling to maintain and increase its fan base and is usually dominated by non-Canadians.

The Elixir of Love presents Canada on the operatic stage in every respect and does a damn good job.
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The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Felice Romani (libretto), opened on October 11 and will be performed eight times until November 4, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Thursday, October 12, 2017

ARABELLA – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has made two commendable choices for its 2017 fall season. One is Richard Strauss’s lyric comedy Arabella being produced for the first time by the COC and the other one is Donizetti’s perennial favourite, The Elixir of Love.

A fine cast led by Erin Wall in the name role, Tomas Konieczny as Mandryka and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Tim Albery’s production goes a long way in making the production highly commendable, but no one can save the creaky and silly plot from producing twitches near the end.

Much can be said and in fact has been written about the social and political milieu of Arabella, the year in which it is set (Vienna in 1860), the time in which it was written (late1920’s) and the date of its premiere in Dresden (July 1933). But it is essentially a simple love story that demands a serious suspension of disbelief.
 Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Arabella is a beautiful woman who is looking for Mr. Right. She saw a foreigner gazing at her in the street and she fell in love with him on the spot. Mr. Right has been found. Mandryka, Mr. Right that is, has the benefit of being loaded, is on his way to Arabella’s residence and he is smitten by her as well. He saw her picture.

Count Waldner, Arabella’s father, is a retired officer whose main occupation now is gambling while looking for a rich husband for Arabella. The word you are thinking of was not in current use at the time but the Count has an unassailable reason for what he is doing. He is broke.
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal adds complications and a sense of urgency to the consummation of instant love, with the consonant need to achieve the riddance of the misunderstandings, and the aversion of bankruptcy. Mr. Right has to be found today, the last day of the Carnival, because there can be no pursuit of marital ambitions after midnight. It is Lent and fasting is imperative.
Michael Brandenburg as Matteo and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Arabella. Photo: Michael Cooper 
In fairness, Hofmannsthal did not live to revise the libretto and he dies before Strauss had begun composing the music. Nevertheless, Strauss composed luscious, melting and radiant music for the creaky libretto that lifts the opera above the silly plot complications and common farcical elements.

Soprano Erin Wall raises Arabella above some of the traits that one would find objectionable in our heroine. She knows nothing about this man and she will live happily ever after in the forests of Croatia! Sure. Wall’s lustrous voice and assured bearing make us believe Arabella and enjoy a superb performance.

Polish bass-baritone  Tomasz Konieczny plays the rich Croatian landowner Mandryka, a bit of a country bumpkin, perhaps, who loves Arabella deeply even though he knows nothing about her. We accept him as he isthanks to Konieczny’s resonant voice and his convincing expression of love and ignore the downside.

Soprano Jane Archibald turns in a highly commendable performance as Arabella’s sister Zdenka. Zdenka causes all the complications that take too long to unravel but she deserves our sympathy. She is raised as a boy because girls are high maintenance and she is desperately in love with Matteo (a miscast Michael Brandenburg) who is desperately in love with Arabella. You get the idea.

Baritone John Fanning plays the gambling Count Waldner straight. Perhaps it is the best way to present the foolish man who is pursued by creditors and his solution is to dispose of his daughter to a rich bidder without missing a card game. Very good work by Fanning.

Set and Costume Designer Tobias needs three sets. A hotel suite where Arabella’s family resides, a ballroom and the hotel lobby for the final act. The hotel suite is aggressively gray, with no wall decorations and a sofa and a chair for furniture. The semicircular panels are turned around to create a lighter gray scene for the ballroom. And similar work is done for the final scene which is lit more brightly for the happy conclusion. The sets are simple and functional and eschew extravagant opulence. Waldner is broke, after all.

Patrick Lange conducts the COC Orchestra in this musically rich opera with a flawed libretto.
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Arabella by Richard Strauss opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times until October 28, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca