After seeing Alexander von Pfeil’s production of R. Strauss’s Arabella for the Deutsche Oper Berlin, I’ve formed the opinion that staging Hofmannsthal’s last collaboration with R. Strauss in Berlin is something like reading a Chinese translation of a play by Shakespeare as provided by Google Translator. Yes, there is a context of decadence in Arabella – it is actually more than a context, it is right in front of one’s eyes when one reads the libretto. But, nota bene, this is about decadence, not decay. And the central element of that all is charm – if the proceedings do not ooze charm, then the whole thing is a tremendous loss of time. And Vienna’s decadent charm is something far more sophisticated and complex than arm, aber sexy. Lufthansa has a cheap flight for Vienna (one hour only) from Berlin on Saturday morning – I guess the Deutsche Oper could have spent EUR 100.00 and made some field research first. As it seems, Mr. von Pfeil thought of the decayed Michigan Movie Theatre in Detroit, the transformation of which into a parking space became some sort of symbol of the end of an era. What has that exactly to do with Hofmannsthal, I mean outside Mr. von Pfeil’s mind? Some people think of a nice glass of wine while listening to, say, Tosca – and that does not mean that one should stage it in a gigantic glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
In any case, this Arabella is set in the Michigan Theatre parking lot and lots of car drive through, including during the ball, where nobody dances. Actually, people refer to a staircase, to going up or down, to going into a room, to bellboys, to a chaperon… but that is replaced by… by cars, who obviously have a central role in Hofmannsthal’s symbology. Afer all, why would he call Arabella’s ball… the Fiakerball….? Clever, huh…
At least conductor Ulf Schirmer bothered to study the score to make an opinion about this opera. In his interview featured in the program, he explains that having conducted the opera in Vienna he learned to associate to a certain “morbid/smooth” tonal quality in the strings. Indeed, this effect was rightly achieved – the orchestral sound was often very beautiful and melancholically expressive. Lyric passages profited from this, especially when strings and woodwind intertwined sensitively. More feverish passages, such as the opening scene or the end of act II, however, lacked comfort in the conductor’s driven approach. During Mandryka’s intoxicated frenzy, this could have made sense if the overall effect counted with more clarity, particularly important in a moment in which countless motivic references are made. Other side-effect of the ripe string sounds was that the orchestra was often loud, making it doubly difficult for every singer in the cast to project into the hall. Maybe a brighter but less voluminous sound picture would have done the trick. Hence, the performance often suggested a pantomime and all singers clearly became increasingly tired during the length of the opera.
Adrianne Pieczonka is a puzzling and ultimately irritating Arabella. She has the right big lyric soprano for the part, but at least this evening she had a serious problem with the highest end of the tessitura, an area of her voice in which she seemed incapable of real legato. Her attempts to produce mezza voce often turned out off-placement and/or strained and, for each beautifully full top note, two unfocused ones would follow. What made her irritating, though, was the fact that, when the writing seemed congenial, she proved capable of echt Straussian style – nobility of tone, feeling for melody, a certain glamour and, most of all, the ability to make the text speak through tone coloring and very personal inflections that are the hallmark of the truly great Straussians. One example of that was her act II farewell to her three suitors, truly charmingly sung and probably the one moment when I believed that Pieczonka was Arabella instead of a woman in a fur coat fighting with difficult high notes. All that said, I make a strong appeal to Anja Harteros: you may like your Verdi, but it is R. Strauss who is in dire need of your talents!
My heart aches when I write that Julia Kleiter’s Zdenka was all in all disappointing. She was often overshadowed by the orchestra and it seems that her golden top notes needed a bit more silver in them to pierce through Ulf Schirmer’s morbid/smooth/loud strings. Aber der richtiger was the main victim of the lack of radiance in both sopranos’ high notes, which should dazzle the listener with gleaming rather than matte intervals. The production also sabotaged her – although the opera is called Arabella, the most important character in the plot is Zdenka – it is her twisted noble action that inspires Arabella and Mandryka to unconditional love. Incidentally, I am still to understand why the lines Zdenkerl, du bist die Beste von uns zweien etc are cut from the performing edition, such as today.
At first, the name of Martin Homrich for Matteo seemed a good choice – I had found his Tamino at the Staatsoper too robust. Indeed his voice seems more at ease in this kind of writing, but the loud orchestra brought about a permanently tense sound from him and it is no wonder that the testing tessitura in act III was rather dealt from willpower in the context of fatigue. Michael Volle had the most substantial voice in the cast and was at ease either in the most intimate or in the most outspoken moments, but even he suffered from the competition with the pit. He was clearly tired in the end of the opera and had to cheat a bit to get away with some tricky phrases. That should be considered a minor flaw in an evening when things were not really working well. His spacious, pleasant-toned voice should should sound comfortable in this part under better circumstances. When it comes to minor roles, it is understandable that the Deutsche Oper cannot offer glamourous casting in an opera so full of them, but the Waldners require more vocally vivid singers than Liane Keegan and Stephen Bronk, robbed by the production of any possibility of congeniality in their rotten-from-moment-one approach truth be said, and Elemer should definitely sound and look more dashing than the reliable Clemens Bieber.
Finally, the edition here adopted involves the Munich 1939 option of joining acts II and III with the deletion of the choral outbursts around Fiakermilli’s final yodeling. My memory might be failing me, but other than Arabella’s acknowledgement of Zdenka’s good nature, the coachmen’s cheering in the Fiakerball and the guest’s comments on the events in the hotel lobby have been trimmed too, probably to save the participation of the chorus (after all, they had to rent all those cars which, we must remember, are a key element for the understanding of the plot…).