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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.

41 comments

  • phoenix says:

    Enzo adorato! Very professional write-up -- are you sure you don’t write for the Chicago Tribune or something?

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    I believe this was supposed to be Renee. I was very glad she dropped out, because it meant Magee dropped out of the Salome I had a ticket for, and we got the incredible Lise Lindstrom instead, who was just amazing.

    • phoenix says:

      An extremely logical theorum, Kurwenal -- and it’s makes perfect sense. I only wish it had happened to me, too!

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield says:

    Where was Roocroft, the best Arabella since Our Own Joan Carlyle?

    • Orlando Furioso says:

      Vicar, how can you forget Heather Harper, who “sang through the role more accurately and strongly than Della Casa ever did”?

      • abydos says:

        Joan Carlyle was a truly great Arabella but also Zdenka the preceeding season with Della Casa as Arabella in pretty threadbare voice

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette says:

      Or indeed Joan Rodgers, who could have sung it in Russian? Arablovna, anyone…?

    • armerjacquino says:

      Of course, what you really want in this opera is Putnam and Rolandi.

      • Nerva Nelli says:

        What I want is Varady and Donath!

        Or Janowitz as Arabella, so long as I don’t have to watch her “act”.

        • armerjacquino says:

          Ha, I guess I deserved that, although you seem to have said ‘Varady and Donath’ rather than the correct answer, which is ‘Della Casa and Bonney’, if only they’d been around at the same time.

          Actually, though, although she was no actor I think Janowitz’s placidity works rather well in the film of ARABELLA. The character is after all so infuriatingly passive, and it throws the intensity of Ghazarian’s Zdenka into a sharper focus.

          I will always fervently defend Janowitz the actor in (and only in) that Vienna FIDELIO, where something somehow caught fire and she gave a scorching performance which is the equal if not the better of *ahem* other much-vaunted Leonoren of the late 20th century…

          • peter says:

            I literally laughed out loud at the “Putnam and Rolandi” line: a sort of an American retort to the Vicar.

          • armerjacquino says:

            (Peter, don’t tell anyone, but I don’t have the balls for this ‘can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach- I feel terribly guilty because I have Putnam and Rolandi on a Glyndebourne video of ARABELLA and they both give gorgeous performances…)

          • MontyNostry says:

            Both underrated (Damn Yankee) singers. I think I saw that Arabella production subsequently with Flott and regretted that it wasn’t the gorgeous Ashley, whom I’d seen on TV -- and about whom, if I remember rightly, the Brit critics were sniffy. At least Rolandi is married to a Brit, of course -- that makes her permissible … even if he does spend an inordinate amount of time in the US of A.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Generally speaking, I’m not a Gundulan, but the bits of that Arabella that I’ve seen on YouTube seem to work extremely well dramatically, even if she is a little matronly and unflatteringly costumed a coiffed (a shame, because she is a pretty woman). I remember listening to the recording around 1980 when I was at college (it was simulcast on TV and radio and I didn’t have a TV in my room) and it was the first time that the opera really clicked with me -- I’ve been very fond of it ever since.

          • marshiemarkII says:

            Carisssssimo Armer, you know that I take second place to no one in my adoration for Gundula, but you surely are not comparing her [feeble attempt] to the greatest Leonore of the last quarter of the 20th century, are you? :-) :-) :-)

          • And her Rosalinde on film is really exquisitely refined, for once.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Erika Sunnegardh, mmII?

          • marshiemarkII says:

            Exactly Monty exactly!

          • Porgy Amor says:

            I agree with AJ about Janowitz in the ARABELLA film. What she does is not that rare kind of good opera acting that makes you believe the person might have had a stage career even without the ability to sing. It’s the other kind. She just projects as very sweet and forthright, and lets the voice do the rest. I feel there’s an understanding of the character that illuminates everything she does, and I stop seeing her as fortyish and plain. She’s not as pretty (at least, here) as Te Kanawa or Fleming, but I believe in her as Arabella more than I do either of them.

            I am also like MN in that this film helped me “get” ARABELLA. I love everyone’s performance, all the way down to Moedl’s Fortune Teller, and I prefer Solti here to his younger, brasher self on the Decca recording with Della Casa.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Roocroft probably was a lovely Arabella, if she did it pre-crisis.

      • La Cieca says:

        Yes, those two weeks in March were perfect heaven.

      • peter says:

        I heard Roocroft sing the Countess in Nozze at the Met about a dozen or so years ago. Although hardly deserving of the loud boo she received after Porgi Amor, she was pretty dreadful. I assume that was post-crisis.

        • armerjacquino says:

          She sang a student Fiordiligi in ?the late 80s? at RNCM, which everyone went mad over in the UK press. Then her first professional casting was as Sophie, which I saw, and which was an odd match to the voice even then. She kept singing parts like the Countess etc which demand beauty of tone, when her natural fach always headed towards stuff like Janacek, where security and commitment are more important.

          Having said which, she proved one thing I would never have believed, earlier this year at ENO- turns out you can be a fantastic Marschallin without a gorgeous instrument.

          • Nerva Nelli says:

            “you can be a fantastic Marschallin without a gorgeous instrument.”

            Evelyn Lear proved that in late career.

          • armerjacquino says:

            I bet she did. One of the things that leapt out of that post of krunoslav’s about the cancelled Met productions of 69/70 was the Lear Tatyana. That’s someone who I would have believed as the girl and as the woman, which is always the problem (except in those miraculous Vishnevskaya farewell performances where she was convincingly the 17 year old despite obviously being four hundred and six with a voice to match)

  • Buster says:

    Interesting review, thanks a lot. I liked the fragments I saw on youtube. A serious Arabella bothers me less than a dumb or coy one.

    Karajan, by the way, is not a conductor I associate with Arabella at all. Do we actually know how his Arabella sounded? He rarely conducted it, not?

    • Porgy Amor says:

      Karajan did conduct the opera very early in its life and his career (1934 at Ulm), but I do not believe there is a recording from any period.

      I did not think Enzo was talking of ARABELLA specifically, though. I assumed he was comparing FWM’s “dynamism and force of personality” to HvK’s in leadership of this orchestra, and perhaps in Richard Strauss’s operas generally. One could conceivably listen to FWM’s ARABELLA and hear similarities to Karajan’s conducting of ROSENKAVALIER and parts of the others he did.

      • Buster says:

        Makes more sense, thanks. Odd Karajan did not conduct the work more often, although he also very rarely conducted Elektra, to which he was much better suited than to later Strauss.

        The only conductor to get the piece 100% is Clemens Krauss, I think. Everytime I listen to his Arabella I hear something new and amazing.

        • Porgy Amor says:

          He (Karajan) put ELEKTRA on a list of favorite works he revisited rarely because he found them physically and emotionally draining or exhausting. It was the only opera. The other compositions were the Mahler 6 (not 9, as is sometimes erroneously reported; definitely 6), Sibelius 4, the Three Orchestral Pieces of Berg, and the Honegger “Liturgique.” No music drama by Wagner was as physically and emotionally exhausting to him as Honegger’s 35-minute piece, so clearly this was not about duration.

          It is strange that there was never a studio ELEKTRA recording. I am grateful for the live one, even if none of the ladies (as heard here) are favorites. It’s all him and the orchestra.

  • grimoaldo says:

    In the discussions of Ballo, several people opined that Oscar was the most irritating character in opera.
    I wanted to say, but bit my tongue as it was off topic -
    “no, the most annoying character in opera is the Fiakermilli in Arabella”.
    Irritating, charmless irrelevant character and doesn’t even have nice music to sing, tacky “yodelling”.

    • Stewball says:

      I think we can agree that Strauss knew how to pull off charm when he wanted to, so Fiakermilli’s lack thereof may well be intentional. Arabella’s unearthly poise, both in her scene with Mandryka and her farewells to the suitors, gains substantially from the contrast with the bumptious Milli. This is the Coachmen’s Ball after all, not a big Imperial event, and what seems intended here is a depiction of how gorgeous time-stopping, life-changing moments occur in the midst of comparative chaos and even vulgarity.

      Gruberova, in the Solti/Janowitz film, is by far the drunkest of all Fiakermillis, and therefore the least arch or coy. One actually fears for her life a little, given the degree to which she’s “goin’ like Elsie”. Her yodelling also comes closest to sounding like the real thing.

      • m. croche says:

        … and even then it’s not very close at all. The yodelling in Arabella sounds about as much like contemporary yodelling records as the jazz in Jonny Spielt Auf sounds like contemporary jazz.

        For those who prefer the real thing, let me enthusiastically recommend a terrific series of 20-odd CDs of early 20th-century Viennese Schrammel, folk, and popular music published by Basilisk Records and available in the US through Arhoolie Records (see here for example.) With liner notes in English and German, these CDs opened up to me a wonderful, nearly forgotten world of musicians, singers and styles. Extreme-Schrammelist Roland Neuwirth has compared the early records of Maly Nagl and Mizzi Starecek to Bessie Smith, and the comparison is not a bad one. The disc devoted to instrumental music , is indispensable, containing among its treasures posthorn duets, ocarinas and a cylinder of Johann Strauss Jr conducting his own orchestra. Spend some time with these CDs, and the refined Strauss interpretations of the Vienna Philharmonic will sound impossibly antiseptic. Also recommended for Mahler-devotees.

        • phoenix says:

          One of the highlights of an Arabella performance (for me) is the jazzy Act 2 finale/ Act 3 intro played by the orchestra I always look forward to hearing -- it completes an identification I make with the score, brings it home to me.

  • grimoaldo says:

    “Genia Kuehmeier is an exquisite Zdenka, recalling Edith Mathis in both crystalline tone and refined musicianship.”

    She is an absolutely lovely artist in every way, I saw her as Ilia in Idomeneo in SF a few years back, in our world of opera “stars” some of whom cannot actually sing, she deserves greater recognition.

    • Porgy Amor says:

      Hear, hear. I first heard as Pamina for Muti — was that in 2006, the year of All Things Mozart? She hadn’t even sung an aria before I knew she was a name I would want to look for in the future. She had me at the Pamina/Papageno duet in praise of marriage (Papageno was Gerhaher). And Zdenka is a great role for her.

  • phoenix says:

    Unless I have misread these comments (and that is entirely possible) -- with the exception of Enzo’s opinion in the actual review, I haven’t come across any praise for Magee’s performance. Has anybody else actually seen this thing complete? I only saw the final scene on utube -- she sounded awkward, out of sorts and lacking physical and vocal beauty & charm (IMO her usual problem for me) -- but from what I read in the review above, that may have been the ‘direction’ -- perhaps I am just too oldfashioned in my expectations -- I don’t know. I am not a fan of Magee, but neither am I a hater of her either. I have enjoyed her very much as Elsa and Chrysosthemis, disliked her Marietta-Marie and Ariadne -- her Tosca was o.k. but nothing special.

    • phoenix says:

      Thanks for taking the time to post these links.
      - I was sort of interested in what the people around here thought of it -- it’s different when you know people and have experience with them and their tastes -- rather than a professional or semi-professional writer living elsewhere you are not familiar with. We know James Jorden, you, TT, Zach, Midgette, etc. so we can read a little more in = get a little more out of what they write.
      - Again, thanks for posting your review as well as these links.