About this work
This last collaboration between Richard Strauss and the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was an effort to revisit the great success of their earlier Der Rosenkavalier. However, the project never reached its full potential since Hofmannsthal died suddenly while preparing the libretto, leaving only the first act complete. Strauss' decision to set his departed colleague's drafts for the second and third acts stands as a tribute to him; the result is a charming and beautiful, but uneven, work, the wonderful first act of which merely hints at what could have been had their collaboration continued.
There are a number of similarities between Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier: both are period comedies set in Vienna (this time in 1860), both involve a "trouser" role (one for a female singer portraying a male character), and both have plots revolving around a proposed marriage for wealth. However, whereas the atmosphere of Rosenkavalier was one of opulence and high society, Arabella focuses in on a less auspicious slice of Viennese life. As a result its musical construction, especially with respect to moments of conversation and dramatic action, is less urbane and sophisticated, instead incorporating many elements of folk music and seeking to extract the utmost lyricism and beauty from each moment. This is especially evident in the central second act, which takes place at the Viennese coachman's ball. Yodeling and relatively simple waltz music surround a love duet of unmatched tenderness; the impression is of a series of set pieces rather than one integral scene.
Arabella is a beautiful young woman whose family intends to marry her upwards in society. For lack of money, the father has had Arabella's younger sister, Zdenka, disguised as a boy to avoid the cost of introducing them both at once. The plot revolves around Arabella's good fortune of finding true love with a wealthy Balkan landowner, and Zdenka's secret, and finally successful, efforts to snare another of her sister's suitors.
The first production of Arabella was complicated by interference from the Nazi government, which ousted the intended conductor, Fritz Busch (to whom Strauss dedicated the score), from his position in Dresden. However, the performance proceeded on July 1, 1933, with a new conductor and performers of Strauss' choosing. Reactions to the work have always been mixed, and so it is not performed nearly as often as Strauss' more popular works. However, the sheer beauty of much of the vocal writing and the appeal of the central characters has kept the work in the repertory, and a number of singers have made names for themselves in the central role -- most notably Lotte Lehmann, and the Swiss soprano, Lisa Della Casa.