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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Arabella - Lyrische Komödie in drei Aufzügen (1930-32) [157:41]
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Graf Waldner: Otto Edelmann (bass)
Adelaide, his wife: Ira Malaniuk (mezzo)
Arabella, their elder daughter: Lisa Della Casa (sop)
Zdenka, their younger daughter: Anneliese Rothenberger (sop)
Mandryka: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar)
Matteo: Kurt Ruesche (ten)
Graf Elerner: Helmut Melchert (ten)
Graf Dominik: Georg Stern (bar)
Graf Lamoral: Karl Weber (bass)
Die Flakermilli: Eta Köhrer (sop)
Eine Kartenaufschlägerin: Kerstin Meyer (sop)
Welko: Willi Lenninger
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker/Joseph Keilberth
*Vier letzte Lieder AV 150 (1950) [20:08]
Lisa Della Casa (soprano)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Karl Böhm
rec. live, 29 July, *30 July 1958, Festspielhaus, Salzburg. Mono AAD
ORFEO C651 053D [3 CDs: 65:23 + 51:59 + 60:27]

 

 

Strauss composed Arabella between 1929 and 1932. In it he revisited the milieu of late nineteenth-century Vienna, which he had explored two decades earlier in Der Rosenkavalier (1909-10). He also deals again with faded gentility, this time in the form of the Waldner family, and the rhythm of the waltz has a part to play, albeit nowhere near as pervasively as in Rosenkavalier. It shares with Rosenkavalier luscious orchestration and some gorgeous vocal lines. In addition it has a couple of roles that are wonderful vehicles for lyric sopranos. It also contains one notable male role, though the parts of Baron Ochs (Rosenkavalier) and Mandryka could scarcely be more different. Like Rosenkavalier this later opera has a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. As is usually the case with Hofmannsthal the libretto is important and substantial and it is regrettable that Orfeo have not provided the text and a translation. The synopsis that is offered is helpful but it’s no substitute for being able to follow the words.

This is a set of CDs that will be of great interest to Strauss enthusiasts. However, before considering the merits of these recordings – which are many – it’s necessary to issue an important caveat.

Arabella consists of three separate acts. If you look at the synopsis and track-listing in the booklet it appears that each act is contained complete on a single CD, with the Four Last Songs completing the third disc. However, I’m afraid that this is very misleading indeed. The last track of CD 2 (track 12) is advertised as the conclusion of Act 2 but it’s not. As the vocal score confirms, in the live performance presented here the last 27 bars of Act 2 are cut (from cue 148, just after Mandryka’s line “Die Herrn und Damen sind einstweiden meine Gäste!”). Keilberth then goes straight into the prelude to Act 3 without a pause. So contrary to what Orfeo’s documentation states, Track 12 contains not the last 5 minutes of Act 2 but in fact a mere 11 seconds at the end of that Act and the whole of the Act 3 prelude. Then CD 3 begins not, as stated, at the start of Act 3 but five bars after cue 21, just where Arabella begins to sing.

This is an important point. It’s all the more puzzling since the booklet contains a detailed and interesting essay about the production, the first night of which is preserved on these discs, yet there’s no mention of the fact that Keilberth runs the last two acts together. One wonders if those responsible for producing the booklet had actually listened to the recording. The conflation of the two acts also presents a great difficulty for Orfeo in that a side-break is inevitable, though it makes for unsatisfactory listening. It’s hard to know how they could have tackled the break better though I do wonder if they should have made it immediately before the orchestra launches into the Prelude to Act Three.

Having got that point out of the way so that prospective purchasers are aware of it I must also make readers aware of the many attractions of this set. This production was a collaboration between the Vienna State Opera and the Bavarian State Opera. As I mentioned, this was its first night and it lasted in the repertoire of both companies for many years. It was cast from strength and it’s worth noting that the cast contains a number of singers who were extremely experienced in these roles. Lisa Della Casa, Otto Edelmann, Ira Malaniuk and Willi Lenninger had all taken the same parts in the Decca recording conducted by Solti, which was set down the previous year. In 1963 Della Casa, and Malaniuk would also take part in a live DG recording, of this selfsame production, I believe, from the Munich Opera Festival under Keilberth’s baton. That performance also featured Fischer-Dieskau and Anneliese Rothenberger, both essaying the same roles as here.

One particular point of interest is that in this production Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau essayed Mandryka for the very first time; this was to become something of a signature role for him. He may have been new to it but it is typical of the degree of preparation that he would have made that his characterisation seems already to be fully formed. He conveys superbly the varying emotions that Mandryka experiences during the course of the opera and his singing is never less than splendid. He commands attention from his very first entry when he appears noble, dignified and as a man who clearly has some dash about him. Later on, in Act Two and at the start of Act Three, when he believes he has been betrayed by Arabella, his dismay and then his rage are potent but he never rants. In fact, I’d say that he’s in sovereign voice throughout the evening and at that stage in his career though he sings off the words quite splendidly I don’t detect any signs of the over-emphasis on words that was sometimes a troubling feature of his singing in later years. His long solo in Act 1 (CD1, much of track 9) is superbly authoritative.

Opposite him he has an Arabella to die for. Lisa Della Casa was not new to the role, having sung it for the first time in 1952. However, she brings no less freshness to her character than does Fischer-Dieskau to his. Her glorious silvery voice is a delight from start to finish. Her phrasing is glorious and the top of her voice sounds so easy and free. Furthermore, she invests the character of Arabella with poise and charm and a feminine radiance that is completely beguiling. I loved the pathos and longing with which she sings of her search for Mr. Right in Act One and the duet with her sister, Zdenka, which follows (CD1, track 5) is quite exquisite and, quite understandably, rouses the audience to applaud; this, by the way, is one of very few such instances of applause during an Act.

It seems to me that Della Casa and Fischer-Dieskau interact marvellously. Their first meeting and his proposal (CD2, tracks 2 – 4) are beautifully handled. He is the ardent but noble suitor while she soars effortlessly and ecstatically above the stave.

The characters of Arabella and Mandryka dominate much of the action but several other singers have important parts to play. It seems that the production was cast from strength. Anneliese Rothenberger makes a spirited and engaging Zdenka. She sings delightfully. Kurt Ruesche presents Matteo, the object of Zdenka’s affections, in a pleasingly light-voiced, ardent style. There’s a good, passionate ring to his voice when required. Otto Edelmann and Ira Malaniuk were both vastly experienced singers and they give fine portrayals of the Count and Countess Waldner. The remaining roles are well taken.

Joseph Keilberth is not now regarded as one of the foremost directors of his day but he was an extremely experienced opera conductor, especially of the Austro-German repertoire. He conducts well and leads the cast and orchestra in a lively and affectionate account. Unfortunately the recording favours the voices and the contribution of the orchestra is not done full justice. This is a sumptuous score but a good deal of detail is muffled and, for example, the all-important horn section doesn’t ring out as gloriously as I’m sure it did that night in the theatre. However, enough emerges from the pit to suggest that the VPO played splendidly on the night. The final reconciliation between Arabella and Mandryka (CD 3, track 9), a passage of echt-Strauss, is beautifully introduced by Keilberth and the VPO. Then Della Casa is meltingly lovely and she and the VPO combine ecstatically. She and Fischer-Dieskau sing rapturously in the closing pages before the headlong ending for orchestra alone. The audience reaction is most enthusiastic, and rightly so.

It’s quite astonishing that the very next night after she had taken part in a full staged performance of Arabella Lisa Della Casa was back on the stage of the Festspielhaus to sing in concert with the VPO. She it was who made the first recording of the Four Last Songs back in 1953. Then too she was partnered by Böhm and the VPO. For that Decca recording she presented the songs in the composer’s preferred order. Thus ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ was placed first followed by ‘September’ and ‘Frühling’ with ‘Im Abendrot’ concluding the set. Interestingly, in this performance the order of ‘September’ and ‘Frühling’ is reversed.

That Decca recording has always been a personal favourite version of what for me is a much-loved work. This live account from 1958 adds a different dimension to my appreciation of Della Casa in these songs. Throughout she sings with lovely, creamy tone and she betrays no sign whatsoever of tiredness after the previous night’s vocal exertions. As was the case in Arabella, her diction is once again crystal clear. It seems to me that the 1953 studio sound is warmer than the 1958 radio sound and it’s certainly closer, allowing more detail to register. On the other hand if anything Della Casa is in even finer voice in the earlier recording.

In the 1958 reading of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ the orchestra’s leader (was it Willi Boskovsky, I wonder?) phrases his important solo gorgeously. Then at the glorious phrase “Und die Seele, unbewacht” Della Casa soars gloriously and effortlessly, spinning a wonderful line before this beautiful song comes to a gentle, glowing orchestral conclusion. I actually have a slight preference for the 1958 account of ‘September’. I’ve always felt that the Böhm/Della Casa performance of this song is just a little too fleet – ideally it needs a bit more space than they allow. However, in 1958 their reading has just a touch more ‘give’ in it and I like that.

Böhm certainly doesn’t hang about in the orchestral introduction to ‘Im Abendrot’ and he’s even quicker off the mark here than was the case in 1953. For my money he’s just a bit too fast this time and he has to apply the brakes somewhat before the singer’s first entry. The final stanza is superb in both versions but the live account has an extra frisson, it seems. Della Casa is beautifully poised at the words “O weise, stille Friede! So tief im Abendrot.” Böhm and his singer are really slow and rapt in these pages, daring to take risks. “Wie sind wir wandermüde – Ist dies etwa der Tod?” the soloist asks and Strauss’s deliberately inconclusive vocal line just seems to hang in the air here before, as it were, he answers Eichendorff’s question with a quotation from Tod und Verklärung. These last few pages are superbly and devotedly handled. This live 1958 performance may not supplant the classic studio account but it’s an invaluable supplement to it.

How then to sum up this set? On the debit side there’s the confusion over the join between Acts Two and Three. Also, the text is not complete; for that you’ll need a studio version. The lack of a libretto is a disappointment and finally the sound, whilst more than acceptable in terms of the voices, does not allow enough of the orchestral accompaniment to come through and there’s certainly no bloom on what we do hear of the orchestra. However, there are plenty of things to set on the credit side of the ledger too. There’s a palpable theatrical ambience and, indeed, a sense of occasion. Joseph Keilberth conducts idiomatically and well. Although it’s a live performance the audience is far from obtrusive. The cast is strong and the leading roles are far more than that. In particular we have singers at the height of their considerable powers in the two leading roles. Lisa Della Casa and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing superbly and present involved and involving assumptions of their respective characters. Finally there’s a substantial and generous bonus in the fine and dedicated performance of the Four Last Songs.

Despite the drawbacks that I’ve felt duty bound to mention I enjoyed this set very much and I know I shall return to it with pleasure in the future.

John Quinn

Addendum

SBT2-1367 Lisa della Casa Elfride Trotschel Ira Malaniuk Hermann Uhde Bayern State Opera Orchestra Rudolf Kempe (BBC recording of performance at the Royal Opera House 21-Sep-1953 )

Since I reviewed this Orfeo set another live recording, again featuring Lisa Della Casa, has been issued. This is a Testament release, which comes on two CDs (SBT2-1367) and which is of no less interest than the Orfeo set.

The Testament release is of a live performance given in September 1953 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, by the Bavarian State Opera. As Mike Ashman says in his very interesting note, this was the first visit to Britain by a German opera company after the Second World War. Clearly the musicians were on their mettle and there was quite a lot riding on the success of the visit, which had a diplomatic importance too. In the event the short residency at Covent Garden was a great success. I was amused to read in the notes that both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express newspapers carried a report of the opening of Arabella on their respective front pages. Nowadays such newspapers wouldn’t even mention anything to do with classical music, let alone on the front page. How times change!

All the singers heard in this performance were members of the Bavarian State Opera company with two exceptions. These were Miss Della Casa herself and Elfride Trötschel, who sang the role of Zdenka. I’m sure the fact that this was a company performance has much do with the feeling of coherence and ensemble that the performance has. In that connection, however, much of the credit must surely go to the conductor also, and herein lies one of the chief attractions of this set. The conductor was none other than Rudolf Kempe who was at that time, and all too briefly, the company’s Music Director. I don’t believe that this great Strauss conductor ever recorded this opera commercially so it’s marvellous to have a chance to hear him in this score.

What we hear is a very fine performance indeed. All the singers seem to identify fully with their respective roles. Della Casa is in sovereign voice and the rest of the cast is very strong indeed. Ira Malaniuk sings Adelaide, as she does on the Orfeo set, but otherwise all the roles are differently cast. Hermann Uhde is the Mandryka. His is a bigger voice than that of Fischer-Dieskau on the Orfeo set and some may prefer the more suave approach of Fischer-Dieskau. On the other hand, Udhe brings different perspectives to his portrayal. For myself, I relish the differences and find both singers persuasive.

Joseph Keilberth conducts very well on the Orfeo recording but I find Kempe rather more imaginative. He had a wonderful way with Strauss, as his classic recordings of the orchestral music for EMI were later to prove. For me, he always makes the most of Strauss’s music but never overstates his case and that’s definitely the case here. He conjures some lustrous playing from the Bavarian players and I find that there’s a better balance between pit and stage than is the case on the Orfeo set, where the orchestra is a bit recessed. In fact the sound is amazingly good for its age. True, there’s some distortion at climaxes but nothing that mars ones enjoyment. The source is a BBC recording and Testament have provided a first rate transfer.

On this occasion I didn’t have access to the vocal score so I can’t confirm whether or not Kempe made any cuts. However, where he scores massively over Keilberth, I believe, is in playing the opera in its three distinct acts, rather than conflating the second and third acts as is done by Keilberth. There is a side break in Act 2 on the Testament issue.

In terms of documentation the Orfeo issue has an edge in that a detailed (and good) synopsis is provided, with the cue points on the discs helpfully included. Testament provide no information at all about the music but Mike Ashman’s note about the background to the performance is fascinating. However, Testament have the libretto, with cue points, on their web site, from which it can be downloaded.

The Testament release enjoys quite a price advantage over Orfeo since the opera is contained on just two CDs, which are offered for the price of one. That’s because Kempe reading occupies 146:50, including applause. However, though Orfeo’s recording is more luxuriantly spread over three discs you do get the considerable bonus of Lisa Della Casa in a radiant account of the Vier letzte Lieder.

Personally I wouldn’t be without either version (and that’s not a cop out!) If pressed to make a choice I think I’d opt for the Testament issue. Both releases feature strong casts headed by the delicious Arabella of Lisa Della Casa. What tips the balance for me is the splendid conducting of Rudolf Kempe. However, since the Testament issue is so reasonably priced dedicated Straussians can add both to their collections and savour two excellent performances and two memorable operatic occasions caught on the wing.

John Quinn

 

 

 



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