Quite often at the opera, people in neighbouring seats feel moved — perhaps because I am toute seule and not grey-haired — to ask me if I am "enjoying it". I'm effusive if I am, and as polite as possible if I'm not. Nobody asked me that during Arabella on Friday night, and thank god — an innocent, friendly question might have landed them with a sobbing stranger to deal with. I actually held myself together quite well during Act One; it wasn't until the curtain came down that I found myself in a semi-paralytic haze, unable to understand how the people around me could just return happily to chattering about nothing and turn their attention to interval drinks. I coped, I got up and walked out into the foyer, but I was only half there. The rest of me was somewhere else; Vienna, I suppose.
And if anything, Act One was the warm up. It got better and better and better and... you get the idea. Of course, it had a lot going for it on paper: a top shelf cast, for the most part; an eminent opera director with a special affinity for Strauss; Richard Hickox; and of course, the fact that it is an opera by Richard Strauss — which is certainly a guarantee of my happiness, and of many other felicities besides. They're not what made it amazing, though; something else happened — the alchemy of opera. This was opera in the ideal sense, the perfect blend of drama and music which gives neither primacy but instead creates a single, transcendent whole which is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. I have read about these sorts of evenings; until Friday, I'd never had one of my own. Which is not to say I haven't experienced some truly amazing performances; but there has been nothing so totally out of this world as Arabella, nothing which, twenty-four hours later, had me still going about in a sort of haze.
I've yet to write my proper review. This will either be incredibly easy or incredibly difficult to do, and I shan't know which until I sit down and start. In the meantime, all that I can think of to do is share a few scattered thoughts — aspects of this Arabella which contributed to, or perhaps grew out of, its unfathomable beauty.
For one thing, I have decided to blame the unremitting dullness of the current Un ballo in maschera on the revival director, and perhaps on the cast; Ballo, like this Arabella, is a John Cox production and it's obvious to me now that anything boring or foolish about the direction couldn't possibly be his fault.
On a related note, heaven be praised — a ball scene without nine billion people on stage. Francesca Zambello's Carmen piled the crowds in at every possible opportunity; the ball in Arabella simply suggests a crowd rather than squeezing the lot of them in. Much, much better; we don't care about the crowd, after all, we care about what's happening on the outskirts between Arabella and Mandryka.
Obviously my reaction to this opera isn't anything like an impartial one; a lot of what has made it such a landmark for me is quite personal. For instance, though he has been one of my most adored composers for years, this was my first live Richard Strauss opera. I've long been in love with the sound world he creates — both in the lush and pretty pieces like Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier, and in the big loud things like Salome and Elektra — but this, in a way, was my first time really living in that world. Oh, there was Zarathustra last year, and the Four Last Songs, but they aren't the same thing. When I learned to love Rosenkavalier, a whole new realm opened up to me and I feel a little as if with Arabella I've finally stepped properly into it. And it was a reminder of how strong my affection for Strauss is; though a relatively new opera to me, in a way it was like coming home.
Having not seen much more of Arabella than a still here and there, I had the wrong idea about her. I imagined somebody quite solemn and sensible, upright and virtuous. She is a very good person, but that shows itself in ways I hadn't anticipated. Her wit, her playfulness, her endearing strength of character made me not just admire her, but adore her too; she was far less distant than I expected. If I might mix genres for just a moment — I expected Jane Bennett and was delighted to find I'd got Lizzie instead.
What I haven't mentioned yet, of course, is the singing. Funny that. Commenting on individual performances feels sort of beside the point. Not that I can claim to have been totally enraptured and oblivious; I am me, after all. There were a couple who were average, several who were superb, and one who was so staggeringly, monumentally beautiful that I'm still getting my head around her. I'll save all of them for my review, except the last — and she deserves, and shall receive, a post to herself. To follow.