Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Arabella (1933)
Otto Edelmann (bass) - Grad Waldner; Ira Malaniuk (mezzo) - Adelaide; Lisa Della Casa (soprano) - Arabella; Hilde Güden (soprano) - Zdenka; George London (baritone) - Mandryka; Anton Dermota (tenor) - Matteo; Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) - Graf Elemer; Eberhatd Wächter (baeitone) - Graf Dominik; Harald Pröglhof (bass) - Graf Lamoral; Mimi Coertse (soprano) - Die Fiakermilli; Judith Hellwig (soprano) - Eine Kartenaufschlägerin; Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, May/June 1957. ADD
DECCA HERITAGE MASTERS 478 1400 [74:17 + 70:13]

Arabella was, in a way, Richard Strauss’s attempt to create a counterpart to Der Rosenkavalier, but set a century later. Here the aristocracy is in decay. Count Waldner, an incurable gambler, has managed to lose the family fortune and only through his daughter Arabella’s approaching marriage to the wealthy Mandryka can his honour be saved. There is party life and festivities in Arabella too, but the atmosphere is staler and the champagne has lost some of its sparkle. This is also the case with the music. It is certainly written with Strauss’s usual professionalism, but the inspiration is less exuberant and the characters seem paler. But Strauss wouldn’t be Strauss if there weren’t some scintillating scenes. Best known is no doubt the Arabella-Zdenka duet in the first act, Aber der Richtige, where one is reminded of the presentation of the rose in Der Rosenkavalier. Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein, Arabella’s duet with Mandryka, also has something of the former glow and the final scene is another highlight.

The present recording, the first studio production of this opera and Solti’s first very first opera set, has many advantages and only a few drawbacks. Recorded in the Sofiensaal in Vienna it was the first in a long line of Decca recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and Solti. The famous Ring cycle and Strauss’s Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier were to follow within the next decade. Solti was a good Straussian and with the VPO in luminous form this set has a lot to recommend it on orchestral grounds alone. Solti has regularly been accused of being too relentless and hard-driven and there may be moments when he is overemphatic. On the whole, however, his eagerness injects some vitamins that make the score blossom. Arabella’s cheeks are a little more rosy!

The sound, while not spectacular in the way the Ring cycle was, is full-bodied and atmospheric. The producer was John Culshaw and this set might be seen as a blueprint for what was to follow in his cooperation with Solti. They had actually worked together as early as 1948.

Recording in Vienna it seemed natural to employ some of the best singers from the State Opera. The choice of Lisa Della Casa for the title role was unavoidable, since she was the Arabella at the time. Her only serious competitor was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but she was under contract with EMI, and question is whether Della Casa was even more accomplished in the role. Her warmth, her creamy tone and her naturalness are so at one with the role. Er ist der Richtige, the long solo preceding the duet with Zdenka, is so lovely and so restrained and in this scene Solti is at his most relaxed. The final monologue is absolutely magical.

Hilde Güden was just as self-evident a choice for Zdenka. I haven’t been able to find out when she first essayed the role, but in January 1953 she recorded the Arabella-Zdenka duet with Della Casa and the VPO under Rudolf Moralt. Sonically this mono recording is no match for the Solti recording, but the singing is so lovely and I wouldn’t trade that disc - now in the Legends series - or the Solti set, which I have owned for ages in the LP version - for any modern recordings.

The third central character, Mandryka, is sung by Canadian bass-baritone George London, who in the mid-1950s was at the height of his powers. And there is no doubt that he makes a formidable and brilliant Mandryka, but he is also rather coarse and gruff. It’s true that Mandryka is no sophisticate but in London’s reading one finds it difficult to understand how Arabella could have fallen for him. In 1954 Lisa Della Casa recorded the second act duet - available on the Legends disc just mentioned - with an ageing Paul Schöffler as Mandryka. He was by then rather lacklustre but there is warmth and humanity in his voice - which I much prefer to London’s. Even Alfred Poell, briefly heard in the final duet, recorded in 1953, is more appealing. No one can, however, deny London’s intensity and expressive declamation.

Otto Edelmann and Ira Malaniuk are good as the Count and Countess Waldner, though Edelmann is rather dry-voiced. We also hear a mellifluous Anton Dermota as Matteo and among Arabella’s suitors the young Eberhard Wächter is outstanding. Mimi Coertse as Die Fiakermilli is superb in her coloratura song Die Wiener Herrn, with impressive virtuosity - not to mention her yodelling!

On DG there is a somewhat later (1963) live recording from Munich, conducted by Joseph Keilberth and with Anneliese Rothenberger as Zdenka and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Mandryka. Fischer-Dieskau may be too much of an intellectual to be an ideal Mandryka but he has his own integrity in the role. Rothenberger is not bad but can’t challenge Güden. There are a couple of other versions which I haven’t heard: on Orfeo with Julia Varady in the title role and on Decca with Kiri Te Kanawa.

As with other issues in this Heritage Masters Series there is no libretto, not even a synopsis. In spite of my reservations about George London I still think this recording is well worth the modest outlay for the ravishing singing of Della Casa and Güden.

Göran Forsling