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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Arabella (1933) [178.00]
Renée Fleming (soprano) - Arabella; Thomas Hampson (baritone) - Mandryka; Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (soprano) - Zdenka; Daniel Behle (tenor) - Matteo; Albert Dohmen (bass) - Waldner; Gabriela Beňačková (mezzo) - Adelaide; Daniela Folly (soprano) - Fiakermilli; Jane Henschel (contralto) - Fortune-teller; Benjamin Bruns (tenor) - Elemer; Derek Welton (baritone) - Dominik; Steven Humes (bass) - Lamoral; Werner Harke - Welko; Andreas Soika - Djura; Tobias Schrader - Jankel; Rafael Harnisch - Waiter
Dresden State Opera Chorus
Dresden Staatskapelle/Christian Thielemann
rec. Grosse Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 10-21 April 2014
no extras
C MAJOR 717304 Blu-ray [178.00]

In Der Rosenkavalier Hugo von Hoffmansthal created a text for Richard Strauss that was well-nigh ideal for a comic opera. The plot perfectly matched characterisation and motive with an admixture of sadness and gaiety. It is therefore unsurprising that some fifteen years later, after their adventures meantime in the realms of symbolism and mythology, Hofmannsthal and Strauss sought to re-create the feel of the earlier comedy in their final collaboration Arabella. Unfortunately Hofmannsthal died before he could complete the revision of his text, and Strauss had perforce to take the libretto as it stood. It is possibly for that reason that the characters in Arabella do not immediately engage the audience's sympathy in the same way that those in Rosenkavalier infallibly do. The heroine, with her ideal vision of "der Richtige" ("the right man") lodged in her brain, can seem narrow-minded at times, flirtish and capricious at others, and downright callous in her dismissal of her forlorn suitors. The "right man" himself, with his vision of pastoral bliss heavily tinctured by hunting, shooting and fishing, can become a boor particularly when - as at the end of Act Two - he gets drunk and jealous - an unpleasant combination. The money-grubbing gambling father and the credulous mother who places her entire trust in her fortune-teller seem like an decidedly unprepossessing couple on the make. Even Arabella's would-be suitors are a singularly milksop breed, who seem convinced and unhealthily obsessed with the idea that spoiling her with gifts and treats is the way to her heart. Only the put-upon Zdenka, forced to masquerade as a boy for the rather unconvincing reason that it would be too expensive to have two daughters in Vienna manages to gain the audience's unmixed sympathies at once. Otherwise the characters tend to rely heavily on the performers singing them to 'sell' them to the listeners.

Strauss himself seems to have recognised that there were problems with Arabella, since for a revival in Munich in 1939 he acquiesced in a revised version by Clemens Krauss and Rudolf Hartmann, running the Second and Third Acts together and making excisions elsewhere. The trouble with this was that with the supposedly weaker explanatory passages removed, the motivations of the characters appeared even shallower than before. However absolutely complete performances of the opera are very rare indeed, and so far as I am aware only Solti on disc and video has given us the score without any cuts; Sawallisch on Orfeo comes close, with one cut of two pages of vocal score that seem quite pointless. Mind you, with so many different 'versions' of the score about, it is easy to get confused. David Hamilton in the Metropolitan Opera Guide reports that Haitink's Glyndebourne video uses the 'Munich edition', which it does not - Hamilton admits he hadn't seen the video in question - although there are some fairly minor cuts. Christian Thielemann has already set down a video of Arabella from the Met in a 1994 issue, and this made cuts in both the Second and Third Acts. This version, on the other hand, is absolutely complete. The orchestra play for him like gods, although his insistence on launching into the Act Three prelude before the audience have stopped applauding is irritating.

The fact of the completeness of this performance is no hardship in the hands of a cast like this, who breathe life into the characters and make even the allegedly routine pages come springing to attention. First of all there is Renée Fleming in the title role. Many sopranos have tended to make the heroine into a placid and amiable sort of creature, singing pleasurably and looking radiantly beautiful but not making her into a real emotional flesh-and-blood young girl. Fleming sings beautifully - one can take that for granted while being duly grateful - but she also brings out the capricious streak in the maturing woman and she looks properly outraged when everyone turns on her in the Third Act. It has been customary for many years to cast the role of Mandryka from the ranks of Wagnerian bass-baritones - Flying Dutchmen at the very least, when Wotans were not available. The results can be horribly hectoring in the closing pages of Act Two when the character gets aggressively drunk. Here his reactions to a girl who, after all, he hardly knows are quite understandable. He comes across as both gallant and gentlemanly in Act Three when he still believes himself betrayed but is willing to support Arabella despite the apparent circumstances. Hampson is much more lyrical than the usual run of Mandrykas and this is a real advantage in this music. Only in the closing pages of the last Act do we get the suspicion that the frequently high tessitura of the role has taken a toll on his voice. Alongside these two stalwarts we also encounter some established singers in the more minor roles: Albert Dohmen blustering as the father although his low notes are weak, Jane Henschel plumply smug as she hacks away at her tarot cards and, best of all, the veteran Czech soprano Gabriela Beňačková still displaying plenty of voice in the mezzo role of the mother.

The casting of Zdenka can cause problems on stage. The soprano with the sheer volume to do justice of some of Strauss's most strenuously high-flying lines rarely has the body that can be convincing as a teenage boy. One forbears to mention some examples on video, but in order for the plot to work it is essential that we can believe that Matteo can have sex with Zdenka as a girl without realising that this girl is the same person as the boy he describes as his "best friend"; amateur psychologists could have a field day with this fiction. In the case of Hanna-Elisabeth Müller no such suspension of disbelief is required. Indeed, when she finally emerges as a woman during Act Three, she comes down to the hotel lobby still in her trousers and with her breasts strapped down, as if to demonstrate how easily the trick was managed. Daniel Behle in the thankless role of Matteo who finally realises that marrying his best friend was just what he wanted all along is usually the character who suffers most when the score is cut. Here he manages the role complete and with a sweetly lyrical tone which still has metal when it is required. As the other suitors Derek Welton and Steven Humes make as much of a mark as Strauss allows them to. Benjamin Bruns manages slightly more than that.

In the Second Act Daniela Fally manages to get her tonsils round the ridiculously elaborate yodelling roulades of the Fiakermilli with panache if not too much beauty of tone. The characterisation she is given - cross-dressing as a coachman and wielding a whip with clearly sexual innuendoes - is quite a long way removed from the specification in the score of Vienna in 1860. Indeed, the chorus are entirely clothed as coachmen too, which lends the scenes when they are dancing together more a sense of the Weimar Republic than anything earlier. It is not quite clear either why they are all standing around, still in the same costumes, in the hotel lobby of the Third Act. Otherwise the production is pretty good and has the right sense of style. The hotel itself is clearly not of the top flight - which is presumably how the Waldners can afford to live there - with dingy furniture and patched plaster on the bare painted walls. We see three different rooms on a revolve during Act One, which works well generally even when characters in the other rooms are occasionally glimpsed engaged on extraneous activities. All of that said, it is surely a mistake to have a lift simply materialise at the back of the stage in Act Three to allow Arabella to get up to her room. This militates against the sense of realism that the production has earlier striven so hard to achieve. Mind you, the dangerously long orchestral passage which Strauss wrote to accompany Arabella's descent of the staircase with her glass of water is superbly handled here. The lift doors open to disclose her at the beginning of the passage, but she does not actually make contact with the glass until the fp chord a full 29 bars later - an example of a producer re-interpreting the music in a manner which chimes perfectly with what the composer wrote. One wishes one encountered this approach more often.

I have seen more handsome and luxuriously unholstered Arabellas on video. The relatively sparsely populated stage during the coachman's ball makes it difficult to realise satisfactorily in dramatic terms the occasions when one character in the crowd overhears another, when one feels that their presence should be immediately obvious to everyone concerned. Then again, the quality of the vocal and orchestral sides is such as amply to compensate for such uneasy moments. Mark Pappenheim's booklet note sometimes oversteps the boundaries between description and critical review, but he correctly identifies the merits of Florentine Klepper's production. It is a real pleasure to note that someone he describes as a "young Bavarian director" can at once be so responsive and so musical in his realisation of a problematic score.
Paul Corfield Godfrey