Film director Andreas Dresen has been praised by his sensitive portraits of ordinary people’s lives generally from the former DDR (as the director himself). In his staging of Richard Strauss’s Arabella for the Bavarian State Opera, one can easily see the sensitive Personenregie in the thoroughly developed characterization from leading to minor roles. However, the aesthetics of a decadent imperial Vienna is here more reminiscent of the design behind the iron curtain than of the art direction in Charles Vidor’s The Swan. All right, the action is here set at some point of the XXth century, but I won’t be able to risk when, given the prevailing anachronism. Matthias Fischer-Dieskau’s sets are uninspired, uninspiring and remarkably ugly. They also look poorly finished. They are not half as problematic as Sabine Greunig’s horrendous costumes: Arabella has a missionary’s wife dress in act I, looks like a suburb cabaret singer in act II and has a leather motorcycle jacket ready for every entrance and exit. Accordingly, her father appears like a member of a rumba trio in his black-and-red outfit. One would feel tempted to close his or her eyes at some points, but the stage direction itself had plenty of interesting ideas, very well informed by the libretto. The episode with the glass of water in the closing scene alone offsets a great deal of the prevailing kitschfest – it sums up the director’s efficient grasp of the comical, psychological and philosophical elements in the libretto.
Although I often wished for better-defined articulation and a more crystalline sound from the orchestra, Philippe Jordan never failed to find the right tempo, the ideal balance between stage and pit and to produce rich and beautiful but never loud sonorities throughout. Whenever the conductor does not find the absolute clarity and thematic coherence required by the complex writing, the second half of act II seems a bit clumsy and pointless. Compared to what one usually hears live, the results were quite decent, but still below the illuminating guidance – alas, rarely – provided by the masterly baton of the likes of Sawallisch.
Although this is not Anja Harteros’s debut as Arabella (she has sang it recently in Dresden, to start with), it is a role she does not sing as usually as she should. The fact that is has been live-streamed by the Bayerische Rundfunk might make her take on the part known to a wider audience. Deservedly so, for she has today no rivals in this role. The writing fits her voice as a glove – she has no problem with the occasional visit to the lower end of her range, tackles the exposed high notes roundly and healthily and shades her soprano to mezza voce without flinching. She has a clear advantage over many a famous Arabellas: singing her own language, she handles the conversational passages with expert word-pointing, tone coloring and theatrical awareness. Some overlooked phrases sounded extraordinarily meaningful and sensitive. As every leading Straussian soprano, she surprised the audience with added glamor in a performance consistently elegantly phrased. I’ve had to think for a while to find something amiss, and I could save three lines in this review by saying that I found nothing. But I don’t have an editor and I’ll use them: if one thinks of Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa, one would have the impression of a provocative reserve in attitude that made Arabella different from everyone else. Anja Harteros was more German than Austrian in her Arabella: she sounded absolutely sincere and involved. Considering her talents, it is an approach I can easily get used to.
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was a most reliable Zdenka, her light, bell-toned soprano very much at ease with the excruciatingly high tessitura and surprisingly well-blended with Anja Hartero’s velvetier tone. She is certainly the best Zdenka I have ever seen (she also does look very convincingly boyish), but it has been a while since we have last heard an important voice à la Anneliese Rothenberger or Lucia Popp in that role. On purely acting terms, Joseph Kaiser was an interesting Matteo – the sexual frustration over Arabella and the puzzlement over the whole Zdenko/a affair finely portrayed – but the top register is entirely devoid of brightness (and I might be wrong, but his culminating high note in act III did not sound like a high b). At first, Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Mandryka sounded lacklustre in his lack of volume and tonal appeal, but he gradually grew in the part out of engagement, attention to the text and forceful top notes. Kurt Rydl was a powerful, funny Waldner, but Doris Soffel’s mezzo is a bit grating these days, what made her a rather uncongenial Adelaide. Eir Inderhaug deserves praise for producing a refreshingly non-cute Fiakermilli.