Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Strauss - Arabella (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Arabella

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Andreas Dresen, Kurt Rydl, Doris Soffel, Anja Harteros, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Thomas J. Mayer, Joseph Kaiser, Dean Power, Steven Humes, Eir Inderhaug, Heike Grötzinger - 11 July 2015

Despite its evident attractions, Richard Strauss's Arabella has never quite managed to outshine the opera it was meant to replace, Der Rosenkavalier. Or, if not replace, improve upon. As a second bite of the cherry of Viennese and Mozartian nostalgia, Arabella is much too self-conscious about all those references and allusions and a little too calculated, never succeeding in capturing anything like the indefinable magic of the original. Not that Der Rosenkavalier wasn't very calculated in its creation, but somehow it manages to transcend all of its cleverness to become something wonderful and beautiful in its own right.

As is Arabella in its own way, and as such, as the lesser Strauss work that is performed more often, it's always open to new ideas, reinterpretation and re-evaluation. Andreas Dresen's production for the Bayerische Staatsoper sets the work nominally closer to the time it was written, hoping perhaps to gain a little more depth, resonance and relevance from the world that Strauss and Hofmannsthal would have lived in. The 1920s also have an advantage of holding the same kind of fading glamour for a modern audience as the lovely evocation of period Vienna would have had for the composers.

I say nominally 1920s however, as it's a fairly abstract set design with not much that is recognisably realistic. And yet, it does find a way to capture the beautiful sense of melancholy of the period, the sense of uncertainty, the searching for hope and faith in what lies ahead for us all that pervades Arabella and gives it its distinctive and characteristic beauty. Possibly the death of Strauss's great friend and the librettist of the work, Hugo von Hofmannsthal feeds through to Arabella's mood of concern about a world were old certainties can no longer be counted upon. There's room in this respect for Arabella to be more in touch with real sentiments than the farce of Der Rosenkavalier, and some productions of Arabella do indeed manage to elevate the work if still never rival the indefinable and constantly shifting qualities of Der Rosenkavalier.

Mathias Fischer-Dieskau's set designs for Andreas Dresen's production enhance that sense of upheaval and change in the world through Expressionistic influences (also from the '20s), and they are also able to draw on allusions to the Great Depression, which has undoubtedly led to the financial insecurities of Graf Waldner and his family. Quite consciously, Dresen emphasises the 'in-between' places that most of the drama of Arabella takes place in by placing staircases at the centre of the set. I'm sure it's not by coincidence either that Hofmannsthal purposefully chose to set the work almost exclusively in places of transition, and staircases obviously have a very clear symbolism for fortunes that can go both up and down.

It succeeds in creating an environment in which you can feel Arabella's sense of not quite being in one place or another. She's a young woman, still the star of the ball, who could once have expected great things for her life, but now, due to the ruin of her family's fortune, she is forced to having to choose between three Counts, none of whom she is in love with. Then there's Zdenka in the 'in-between' state of a girl who has been forced to dress as a boy since her family cannot afford to marry off two daughters. Even when Mandryka fails to live up to the promise she holds for him, it's just another case of not being quite here nor there. Arabella is a fascinating role in this respect and those qualities are supported well, without overemphasis, by the stage direction, even if the sparse set doesn't really convey the full richness of the character.

It's left to Anja Harteros to convey all the uncertainty, longing and melancholy of Arabella in the singing, as well as the warmth and beauty of her personality as Strauss scored it. In terms of vocal delivery, Harteros can hardly be faulted. She has the full richness of tone and the range to do Strauss well, and it's an expressive voice too. Harteros is not a bad actor either, but I don't think she quite manages to embody the qualities of elegance and warmth of this beautiful, mistreated, forgiving soul as she graciously comes to accept the unfair reality of the world we live in, taking it as it is.

Thomas Johannes Mayer sings Mandryka wonderfully, looks the part and puts personality behind it. Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel are old hands at the parts of Waldner and Adelaide and both in good voice here. Joseph Kaiser's is also on familiar ground and an assured Matteo, as is Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Zdenka. Eir Inderhaug is a firecracker of a 20s' cabaret singer Die Fiakermilli. As I witnessed a few years ago in Paris, Philippe Jordan has a real feel for all the moods and complexities of this work, and the Bayerische Staatsorchester delivered a wonderful warm spirited account of the score.