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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Strauss, Arabella: Garsington Opera, 19th June 2005 (H-T W)


Ever since Leonard Ingram founded his opera festival in front of the terrace of his Jacobean Manor House in Garsington, south of Oxford, in 1993, Haydn, Rossini and Mozart - soon to be followed by Richard Strauss – have established themselves as the house composers. Since 1994, the conductor Elgar Howarth and the director/designer David Fielding have created memorable performances of “Capriccio”, “Daphne”, “Die ägyptische Helena”, “Die Liebe der Danae”, “Die schweigsame Frau” and “Intermezzo”; Garsington became the English Mecca for the fans of Richard Strauss. This year, the same team tackled “Arabella”, but for the first time failed to deliver the essence of an opera.


This lyrical comedy in three acts, the last collaboration between Strauss and the Austrian neo-romantic poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had its world premiere at the State Opera in Dresden on the 1st of July 1933. The essence of the piece, light hearted and set in Vienna of 1860, is charm and innocence mixed with a touch of Viennese sweetness. It asks for a well-balanced cast and for a sensitive and delicate production style. David Fielding found it appropriate however to update the story to the hectic 192Os. It took place in the Hotel Österreich, the first two acts in the Zodiac Bar, the last act in one of its floors with a staircase leading to another floor. Art deco and black and white dominated.


From its beginning, the short prelude was full of unnecessary action. Will producers ever accept that any prelude belongs entirely to the composer to create the right atmosphere? The story is about the penniless Count Theodor Waldner, his wife and his two daughters, Arabella and Zdenka, the latter dressed as a boy to direct the interest of rich suitors towards the beautiful Arabella. With the sudden arrival of a deus ex machina, alias Mandryka, a Croatian landowner with lots of money who has fallen madly in love with Arabella after having seen her picture, havoc ensues because of Mandryka's uncontrolled jealousy. Only at the very end, when Arabella brings Mandryka a glass of water as a sign of her ever- lasting love for him, is harmony restored.


The plot is full of subtle details, with extreme, as well as understated, emotions mixed up with an endless variety of comic and sentimental situations. All of it is Strauss and Hofmannsthal par excellence and, for me, two quotations from “Rosenkavalier” are omnipresent; the Marschalin´s words “Ist halt eine Farce, und weiter nichts” and the famous duet between Octavian and Sophie “Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein, daß wir zwei beeinander sein.” This `beeinander´ (together-''ness") may be constantly interrupted by unforeseen circumstances, but it forms the basis for this purest of operatic stories dealing as it does with a lasting love that is ready to burgeon even long before Arabella and Mandryka meet each other eye to eye.


Sadly, there was not much togetherness of any sort in this production. It all seemed more of a constant battle between who could be the noisier, the orchestra or the singers. This led to a kind of misplaced Wagnerian brutality and all the beauty of the music went down the drain. Orla Boylan (Arabella) possessed the right timbre, but had been put into an upright straightjacket, while Peter Coleman-Wright (Mandryka) sounded like an overpowered Wotan. Lorina Gore (Fiakermilli) tried to outdo him in the ball scene and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts (Matteo), who should at least been given a wig to make him a little more sympathetic, had to act like an hysterical mad man. I saw no reason at all why Zdenka (Cora Burggraf), the only ideally cast member within this difficult to digest evening, should fall in love with him. Stephen Richardson (Graf Waldner) and the three suitors were much more acceptable, but they could make little difference to an overly hectic and fussy production without the slightest charm, humour, warmth or sentimentality. Even Elgar Howarth in the pit was not capable of delivering the score according to the intentions of Richard Strauss.


None of this was the singers´ fault, but whoever did the casting had not considered that in this small and tent like auditorium, the sound has only limited space in which to travel. On the other hand, the production team seemed – as is so often the case nowadays – to have little interest in following the instructions of either composer or librettist, but chose instead to indulge their own mysterious egos - a particularly dangerous practice with artists like Strauss and Hofmannsthal, who were full-blooded theatre people and knew their trade only too well. I do love this opera, but this time I left it with a headache.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt


Photographs © Johan Persson

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