(Arabella—Strauss) by the Earl of Harewood
Diaghilev is supposed to have confronted Cocteau with ‘Jean, étonne-moi!’, and I like to think of Richard Strauss every time the post came in from Vienna hoping the next chunk of libretto would astonish him, and finding on page 4 an amazing piece of Hofmannsthal's fantasy. Because every now and then there's no doubt it happened. Think of the great set pieces—the Presentation of the Rose, the Glass of Clear Water. They are pure imagination and nothing like them ever happened in real life, anywhere. But the point is you believe they did. The other point is that they are calculated to strike sparks off a composer like Strauss, who could set anything (I never know if it is true that he once set a stage direction, but—as with Hofmannsthal's fantasies—it is easy to believe he did). [It is true: he set stage directions in Der Rosenkavalier and Die ägyptische Helena—Ed.] He would be stimulated by the imagination behind Hofmannsthal's fabrication and would suspend any element of disbelief.
I don't know where the poet ‘found’ Arabella and her family (originally invented for a projected pre-1914 novel), but that would not have been hard, I imagine, at any time in Vienna. The invention of Mandryka is something quite different. Everyone has an operatic character they believe, had they the voice, they would play with total conviction—Wotan, the Dutchman, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff. Mandryka would be high on my list.
Waldner's [Arabella's father] trawl of rich comrades from his regimental days is a grubby little device (on his part, not the writer's), but that through it he should catch the nephew of his old friend and cause him to fall in love is the kind of notion which deservedly strikes gold. And how Strauss rises to the occasion! He proceeds as soon as he gets into his stride to a musical portrayal of the coup de foudre—the overwhelming conviction at the very start of a relationship which insists this is it!—described by its protagonist. It's quite unlike anything anywhere else that I know of. The music approaches one climax after another, the orchestra prompts and underlines and acquiesces, and my only worry is whether I should be watching such private revelations at all.
Here is this great backwoodsman (that's what we call them in England if they've inherited wealth and don't come out very often to justify it) falling so totally in love that he is even prepared to pour everything out to someone he's never previously met, simply because he is the father of the unknown beloved! He rushes on, trying to convince with what he knows is a completely valid case but is worried another won't recognize. His feelings stream out in an avalanche of excitement as he tries to advance his relatively new circumstances—the vast inheritance from his uncle—and then, in a typical Hofmannsthal twist (accepted with obvious relish by Strauss), twigs that Waldner's cash flow has dried up and would be transformed by a contribution from outside. The moment of comedy passes, as it was always meant to do, and his words before he takes his leave are grave and to the point and touching to listen to. He will wait to hear when it will suit the ’Frau Gräfin’ to receive him.