Nature or civilization, town or country, the flow of the river or the rush of the city, the glitter of the ballroom or the cool of the woods, the slow rhythm of the seasons or the woods, the slow rhythm of the seasons or the dazzle of the social whirl. These age-old contrasts are at the heart of Arabella, where Vienna, the setting of the story, represents city life at its most enticing and corrupting.
Though the libretto of Arabella was written in the late 1920s, it is based on a short story that Hofmannsthal had published before the First World War. And it is Vienna at that time of hedonistic triviality—with the looming cataclysm of the war that would destroy all the certainties of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—that Arabella captures.
It is carnival day. Two young sisters face having their emotional futures sacrificed to their parents' financial desperation. Arabella must choose a husband from one of three aristocratic suitors before the evening's ball. And her younger sister Zdenka has to live her life disguised as a boy because her parents lack the money to clothe her and bring her out into society, tortured all the while by a hidden love of her own.
Arabella encapsulates within herself the dilemma of the longing for financial security, not only for her but her whole family, pitted against the desire for romantic freedom. She loves fun, beautiful things, the adoration of men, everything that money can offer; but she also feels an emptiness, knowing instinctively that life and love can and should be something more.
Then Mandryka arrives from the country—unsophisticated, totally unconcerned with fashion or the opinions of others, full content ruling benevolently over his country estates as a king of Austrian Tolstoy, rooted in his beloved countryside. Arabella immediately recognizes that, unlike anyone she has ever met, he is utterly his own person; that together, away from the world, they will be complete "for all time and eternity."
Of course Arabella is a romance, so, conveniently, Mandryka has inherited the enormous wealth necessary to support the rural idyll that Arabella chooses. But beneath the charming improbabilities of the plot and the entrancing lyrical outpourings of Strauss' music, lies the endlessly fascinating question: "What is the good life?" Does the craving for money and status distort what is real and authentic in human relationships? Is there a harmony in the natural world that we have lost as we hurtle ever faster into the future?
Banner: Erin Wall and Jane Archibald in Arabella (COC, 2017), photo: Michael Cooper