Richard Strauss - Arabella
Weiner Staatsoper, 2014
Ulf Schirmer, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Anne Schwanewilms, Genia Kühmeier,
Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 18 December 2014
Arabella is a bit of a 'Zdenko' of an opera. It's posing as something that it isn't, a female opera dressed in men's clothes, and it's a little bit self conscious about it. It's a second bite at the Der Rosenkavalier cherry by Strauss and Hofmannsthal that somehow misses the point. Attempting to get back to the original sentiments and intentions that inspired their most enduring collaboration, focussing on the romance of period Vienna with its waltzes and operettas, attempting to remove much of the clever self-referentiality and longeurs of Der Rosenkavalier, something however gets lost in the process. It's as if the self-consciousness of the latter has somehow cancelled out the cleverness of the original idea. What you are left in Arabella is simply a beautiful opera, but not much else.
As composed by Strauss, with his wonderful facility for lush orchestration and his incredible writing for the female soprano voice, it is however also too easy to get carried away with the view that the creators might indeed have 'improved' on Der Rosenkavalier in some key respects. Without doing disservice to the undoubted qualities of Arabella as a lovely opera, Ulf Schirmer and Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production for the Vienna State Opera does however refuse to let Zdenka's deceit as to her true nature extend to a view of the opera itself. As Arabella puts it, so perfectly and without any falsity in the final line of the opera, 'nimm mich wie ich bin', "take me as I am". The Vienna production takes Arabella as it truly is, without all the usual adornments.
Key to this interpretation is the casting of Anne Schwanewhilms as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka. Schwanewilms is an accomplished Straussian soprano, but she presents a very different side of the typical Strauss leading lady from the familiar lush silken romanticism and perfection you would find in Emily Magee, Rene Fleming or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Her voice is not to everyone's taste, the tightness of her high notes and the less than smooth leap it sometimes takes to reach them nowadays is not ideal, but it's not idealised either. There's a more human quality to the emotional life of Arabella here than I'm familiar with. By the end of the performance, instead of being in awe at the beauty and brilliance of Strauss as a composer, in this production you really feel Arabella's pain and the meaning of those final words. Schwanewilms shows that there is a real heart behind Arabella as an opera, and all too often that's easy to miss.
Likewise, I tend to associate Mandryka with the warm, measured tones of a Michael Volle, and he is a marvellous interpreter of this role. Again however, his kind of interpretation can tend to add a little more sugar to the already honeyed tones of Strauss's orchestration. There's nothing wrong with that - I enjoy sinking blissfully into such performances - but it can be instructive to hear some other voices in the same role, and with Tomasz Konieczny giving a little more of a harder edge to the rough-mannered bear-wrestling wild man from the provinces, it does test how far Arabella can work as a dramatic opera in its own right. Perhaps it will reveal that the work is not quite perfect, but to me the little revelations and the laid-bare openness is better than smothering it with fake sentiment.
As Hugo von Hofmannsthal died during the preparations for the work, the libretto complete but - knowing Strauss and Hofmannsthal's working relationship - likely to be subject to further revisions, it's impossible to know how Arabella might have developed. As it stands, it's not as polished or as sophisticated a libretto as you might like, for all the surface beauty of the musical score. On the other hand, it could be that the operetta-like simplicity of the plot was precisely the intention and just the effect that the creators were striving towards. There's little intrigue to speak of until fairly late in the proceedings, what there is then is far from convincing in its developments and resolution, but it's not without some truth in its sentiments and it does touch on joy as well as the pain and heartbreak that comes in relationships. By the end, any kind of idealisation over the past, about love, is put aside in those final beautiful forgiving sentiments of the work.
Whether it perfectly captures everything that the creators intended is open to speculation, but in other respects Arabella is certainly moving in other direction that Strauss would explore, with more of the theatrical spoken-sung style that Strauss was heading towards in Intermezzo, as well as exploring more of the moments of beauty, wonder and joy that can be found in the nature of the domestic drama. Ulf Schirmer seems to be bearing this in mind with the conducting of Arabella and in this respect he's at one with the production and the singing. Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf and the Glittenberg's set and costume designs typically avoid the significant period of the work and update Arabella to around the time of composition, placing it in an Art Deco hotel and a jazz bar. It retains an air of sophistication then without the luxurious extravagance of the romanticised 1860s Vienna.
Aside from the qualities that Schwanewilms and Konieczny bring to the work, the singing elsewhere is similarly strong and complementary. Wolfgang Bankl and Carole Wilson make a good Count and Countess, Wilson rich lyrical voice in particular bringing new qualities out of Adelaide. Herbert Lippert's Matteo is bright and quite heldentenor-ish, while Daniela Fally makes quite an impression as Die Fiakermilli ought to, even doing the splits while singing. And what about Zdenko/Zdenka herself? As the motor behind the plot developments, twists and revelations, Zdenka is a vital character in the opera, and it couldn't be better cast than with Genia Kühmeier. For all the conflict between surface impressions and the harsh reality, there is a warm heart that beats in Arabella, and as the driving force that re-engages the characters with their better sentiments, Genia Kühmeier's Zdenka fulfils that role, as well as giving the production the warm heart it needs.
This performance of Arabella was streamed for live broadcast via the Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home streaming service. There's an impressive line-up to be viewed over the next month, with DIE FLEDERMAUS on 31st Dec, DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE on 4th Jan, David McVicar's production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on 18th Jan and SALOME on 23rd Jan.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video