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Christian Thielemann’s spirited, precise conducting and the superb, sumptuous playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden are the finest features of this strongly cast performance of Strauss’s Arabella, given a new staging for the 2014 Salzburg Easter Festival and released here on DVD by Unitel Classica.  The production also celebrated Strauss’s 150th anniversary.

Arabella, the sixth and final collaboration of Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is frequently considered the stepchild of Strauss’ wildly popular Der Rosenkavalier, and indeed it contains many similar elements—Viennese setting, instantaneous passion, a specific courtship ritual. 

But Arabella’s characters are drawn more from the bourgeoisie than the aristocracy, making much humor in the down-on-their-financial-luck family of Count Waldner, including his two daughters, the highly marriageable Arabella, and poor Zdenka, who is dressed like a boy because the family can’t afford to present two daughters to society at the same time.

The cast is led by Renée Fleming, in excellent late-career voice, as Arabella, a role that seems to suit her musically and histrionically.   Fleming’s work at this stage of her career has been marked by a certain cold remoteness, particularly in her many performances as the Countess in Capriccio.  But here, she exudes youthful warmth and longing, seems to connect with the character, and gives a moving and deeply felt performance.

She has excellent chemistry with the Mandryka of Thomas Hampson, but he is wildly miscast in a role that the accompanying essay calls “the wealthy Croatian wild man.” Hampson sings his romantic music well, but his naturally elegant demeanor fails him when he is in the highly impulsive/emotional side of the character in Acts II and III.  There is too much barking and shouting in the drunken scene at the Cabmen’s Ball, and low notes disappear into the orchestra.  “Wild” he is not.

The supporting cast is strong indeed.  Albert Dohmen and the much beloved soprano Gabriela Benacková play Arabella’s harried parents with humor, charm, and style.  Hanna-Elisabeth Müller makes a stunning role debut as Zdenka, her bright soprano and sparkling personality perfectly fitting the impulsive little sister.  Daniel Behle sings poor Lieutenant Matteo with sensitivity and tonal beauty.  Daniela Fally fearlessly attacks the coloratura fireworks of Fiakermilli, though she turns a bit shrill at the very top.  Jane Henschel is a formidable (and very loud) Fortune Teller.

For the most part, the production by stage director Florentine Klepper works quite well.  I especially liked the first act set (by Martina Segna), a set of three interconnected rooms in what appears to be a once-elegant hotel that has fallen on hard times, matching the state of the Waldner family.  The Cabmen’s Ball scene in Act II becomes increasingly nightmarish as the evening’s events begin to snowball into negativity and Mandryka continues drinking.  Fiakermilli arrives with a riding crop and whip, something of an S&M dominatrix.  The chorus begins to reflect the obsession in Mandryka’s mind—when he sees Zdenka giving Matteo her room key, the entire chorus pulls out identical keys.

The beautiful reconciliation scenes that end the opera are superbly rendered.  The moving courtship ritual at the end, when Arabella shares her glass of cold water with Mandryka, is played with powerful warmth by both Fleming and Hampson.

The excellent costumes of Anna Sofie Tuma and lighting by Bernd Purkrabek create just the right mood and look for this production.