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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.

  • bronzino

    Because von H died suddenly near the end of the collaboration of this the final opera with RS, herr Strauss decided to keep ALL of the existing libretto of von H (no final editing/finageling) as a sort of tribute to his colleague von H. As such, Arabella sounds to these ears rather bloated and needing of a good trim and tuck. von Karajan famously make cuts in his production of FRoSh--do any partarianns know of or have experienced an Arabella performance with cuts/edits, and how did it sound--better than con scritto? unwelcome surgery?

  • Buster

    Acts two and three were sometimes combined, with cuts in both acts. I don’t believe this is done anymore, though. Keilberth, Bohm, and Haitink used to do this. Even Sawallish is not note complete -- but who on earth would want to listen to that recording?

    I loved Marc Albrecht’s conducting of the score -- first time I noted how beautiful the music is in the Mandryka/Arabella’s father scene.

  • Porgy Amor

    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.

    On the DVD of the Carsen at Palais Garnier, I have the opposite problem with her. She sounds and looks great, but she inhabits another world from the others. It is a “nice lady next door” Madeleine, in which I never hear the ironic quotation marks, even when I’m fairly sure I should. It is still one of the great Strauss DVDs, and the preferred option (to the Met’s some years later) if one wants the Nay-Nay Countess Madeleine.

    Actually, this has been a career-long issue I have had with Fleming — a good deal of what she is well set up for musically calls for a temperament that is alien to her. I mostly enjoyed the HD of The Merry Widow, but when Hanna is flirtatious and sarcastic with all of her suitors at the ball in the first act, I didn’t believe it. I actually wanted more “remoteness,” more (or any) hauteur. The closest I have seen her get is the Wernicke Rosenkavalier cond. Thielemann. That revival was mounted some years after the Regie himself had passed, but it remained a smart production, and she effectively played the very specific Marschallin of it. I might not have guessed she had this in her, from my experience with the Met’s museum piece.

    [Hampson’s] low notes disappear into the orchestra

    This was what I noticed recently at Hoffmann. The whole voice (a glorious instrument 25 years ago) has aged, but there are now just wisps at the bottom.