The problem of staging decadence is that the audience has to understand that there have been upper standards at some point. When you are shown something that looks like the dictionary example of “tawdry”, one might wonder why Arabella finds it important to explain Mandryka that the Waldners lead a dubious existence there. In Philippe Arlaud’s obscenely ugly, blunt and superficial staging, even Mandryka’s untrained eyes would not need more than a glimpse of the whole thing to feel that he might be somewhere unashamedly second-rate. In it, you could take Baron Waldner for a waiter, the Baroness for the owner of a brothel and Arabella for the cashier with the messy coiffure. If someone like Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa had the bad luck to show up in a place like that, a sensible bouncer would escort her out and find her a cab.
Although there is not vulgarity in Anna Gabler’s Arabella, she ultimately fits her surroundings by the absence of any charisma and glamor, both in stage presence and singing. Her mezzo-ish soprano lacks radiance, does not project very well, has a hint of throatiness and sounds bottled up in its high notes. Her legato too can be problematic and the end of phrases are often undersupported and there is a problem of intonation (in the act II duet with Mandryka things went particularly astray). In those circumstances, interpretation here has fallen behind the intent to survive the high tessitura and the heavy orchestration. Anja Nina Barhmann’s Zdenka wouldn’t normally offer strong competition (as every good Zdenka should), but the natural brightness of her voice and her comparatively clear diction put the audience on her side, even if the ability of floating mezza voce eludes her entirely. As a matter of fact, the most testing passages brought upon a piercing and grainy sound that made her Zdenka more hysterical than exalted. Replacing Steve Davislim, Martin Nyvall was truly unfazed by the high notes in the part of Matteo. His medium and low registers, however, lack focus. The tonal quality, truth be said, is far from unpleasant. Even if Wolfgang Koch’s Mandryka is really devoid of charm, his glitch-free, firm-toned singing placed him far above of every other element in this performance. I would even say that his first act was top-notch in richness, volume and sense of line. As almost every other singer in this role, he would get a bit tired in act II, but even then he invariably produced exemplary heroic top notes – yet he seemed increasingly unengaged. If I had to appear in front of an audience with such ridiculous and unbecoming clothes, maybe I would feel that way too. Hidekazu Tsumaya worked a bit too hard for his Viennese accent as Waldner, but acted and sang famously, embracing the misguided directorial choices with gusto.
Although this evening’s drawbacks were various, Bertrand de Billy’s spineless conducting of a Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra matte in sound, unclear in articulation and often clumsy was the ultimate deathblow in Richard Strauss’s beautiful score. And saggy tempi only gave the audience plenty of time to realize the extent to which the composer has been ill-treated in his 150th jubilee.