Not quite right

The last of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaborations, Arabella, is a real problem child.  The librettist died before significant revisions could be made to the opera and the composer set what remained in dutiful homage to his artistic partner.  Intended to evoke the heyday of Vienna and Hapsburg culture, the opera usually benefits from a lovingly traditional approach which reflects the nostalgic heart of the piece.

That is not to say that a radical re-interpretation with the ability to surface something meaningful about the work, its characters or their creators would not be welcome.  Unfortunately, this 2012 DVD from the Wiener Staatsoper is neither fish nor fowl. 

Stage director Sven-Eric Bechtolf and his design team have settled for an easy middle-of-the road production that bypasses kitschy realism but offers no compensating vision or concept.  This looks exactly like the kind of thing that might bear a passing resemblance to a regie staging but is not challenging enough to interfere with the “instant opera” formula that the Wiener Staatsoper relies on in getting performances to the stage.  The storytelling unfolds clearly but without any distinct point of view or unifying message.

The setting has been updated to the time of the opera’s world premiere and the visual clichés tumble forth with an almost relentless insistence.  Arabella and family are ensconced in a warehouse-sized room at the infamous Hotel Metropol, future headquarters of the Gestapo.  Elemer is a film mogul, accompanied by a camera crew who transform his courtship of Arabella into a parody of Rudolph Valentino’s The  Sheik.

Count Waldner resembles Daddy Warbucks, with Adelaide an Auntie Mame eccentric flaunting turban and cigarette holder.  Mandryka is no baronial landowner but an Oskar Schindler industrialist in a period suit and fedora.

The coachmen’s ball is set in a barroom reminiscent of Victor/Victoria, with a Cubist mural in the background.  The guests include the obligatory lesbian couple and a gaggle of hirsute drag queens.  A saxophone player right out of Jonny Spielt Auf wanders in for the Act Two finale.  The hotel lobby is an Art Deco inspired foyer with backlit poster art of the era.  This all amounts to the equivalent of directorial indicating, shorthand for anything of real substance or complexity.

The cast is left to its own devices.  Emily Magee is a seasoned Straussian and this performance demonstrates why.  She weds a superb sense of line and formidable breath control to a voice that is evenly produced and creamy in timbre.  Magee fills out the long, arching phrases with glowing tone.  Her portrayal of Arabella is sincere but a tad too serious, lacking playfulness and the eccentricity of character that would allow us to believe her happiness depends on an absolute stranger.

She is not helped by a set of dowdy costumes which only emphasize the missing element of girlishness.  For the sleigh ride at the end of Act One, Arabella sports a fur coat with shoulder padding that would make Joan Crawford blush.  To her credit, Magee’s characterization eschews the artifice and superficiality that have mired other attempts at the role.  Arabella’s farewell to her suitors is touchingly played and she delivers a radiantly vocalized account of the final scene.

Resembling a young Stacy Keach, Tomasz Konieczny is an appropriately bearish Mandryka.  His voice is similarly attractive, notable for its depth and warmly burnished color.  He has a habit of squeezing the tone but is otherwise agreeable.  Neither he nor Magee is well served by a production which has made little attempt to help them define just what exactly these characters are about.  They manage to convey the recognition of mutually shared soulfulness in the big second act duet but there is little of the detailed portraiture that would engage viewers and help us understand the enigmatic nature of the two protagonists.

Genia Kuehmeier is an exquisite Zdenka, recalling Edith Mathis in both crystalline tone and refined musicianship.  She easily embodies the character’s hyper-emotionality, by turns anxious, tender and impulsive.  Kuehmeier blends beautifully with Magee in the “Aber der Richtige” duet and the audience bursts into applause at its conclusion.  Unfortunately, her male attire includes an unflattering head wrap more suitable for disguising chemo hair loss.

Michael Schade, made up like a Leninist, and plays Matteo as an unpleasant brute, making an already unlikable character more problematic.  He sings well enough but the very top is strained and threadbare.  Wolfgang Bankl is an admired character singer in Vienna but his Waldner is rather flat and lacks the Falstaffian wit and warmth others have brought to the role.  Zoryana Kushpler is an ordinary Adelaide who fails to convince us that her maternal instinct is genuine.  Daniela Fally yodels heartily in Fiakermilli’s coloratura, gamely executing a split on the bar during her brief appearance in Act Two.  The rest are forgettable.

Franz Welser-Moest is the superb conductor, bringing a dynamism and force of personality reminiscent of his predecessor Herbert von Karajan to bear on the piece.  The orchestra plays superbly for him, with a wealth of nuance.  Indeed, the famous ensemble is enjoying something of a golden age under Welser-Moest’s artistic leadership at the Staatsoper.  He uses the version with no intermission between Acts 2 and 3.

Lovers of Arabella may want this DVD for Welser-Moest’s masterful conducting or Magee and Kuehmeier’s well-sung performances.  But this production will please neither the traditionalist nor the regie fancier and regrettably ends up boring everyone else.