Posts Tagged ‘R. Strauss’s Arabella’

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 fails to 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.


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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.

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Christian Thielemann’s reputation as a Straussian conductor is somewhat older than his as a Wagnerian, and I would dare to say that, although he is often mentioned as some sort of Bayreuth’s great hope, R. Strauss’s music is still the repertoire where all his strengths lie. His instincts are basically almost invariably right in this music, his ability to produce perfectly transparent textures in large scale is admirable, and the sense of forward movement and objectivity that make his Wagner sometimes insensitive drain his Strauss of all hint of sentimentality.

This evening, the conductor decided to explore some rare Straussian pieces with famous soloists to draw a larger audience. The orchestral numbers were composed in circumstances that explain their almost complete oblivion today: the Festmusik for the city of Vienna was a 1942 official command and, although the Festliches Präludium was composed in 1913, it was performed in the celebration of the German chancellor’s birthday in 1943. While the former is a quite uninteresting piece for brass instruments and timpani, the later is an impressive (if rather shallow) tour-de-force for organ and great orchestra expertly calculated to produce a standing ovation (as in this evening). Thielemann resisted the temptation of overdoing the effect and gave a sober yet powerful rendition of this exuberant score.

The conductor’s sense of balance proved providential for his soloists – Renée Fleming offered a gorgeously and stylishly sung Traum durch die Dämmerung over a delicate carpet of orchestral sound. Winterliebe requires a lighter touch for its upwards melisme that made it a bit difficult for her to pierce through, but she still then eschewed any vulgarity. The Gesang der Apollopriesterin (op. 33-2) showed the soprano in her best form and behavior – savoring the text, coloring it with imagination and producing beautiful round top notes throughout. In Waldseligkeit, she could not find the necessary ethereal mezza voce, but her voice has inbuilt floating quality and she handled the lower end of the tessitura better then most. Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a bit higher than almost everything he sang this evening requires; he could barely be heard in the bottom of his range and exposed high notes were a bit rough. Nonetheless, he showed himself as an ideal interpreter for the somber declamation of both the Hymnus (op.33-3) and the Notturno (op. 44-1) and still produce the right hearty enthusiasm for the Pilgers Morgenlied (op.33-4). Thielemann provided kaleidoscopic sounds, perfectly blended to his singers, knowing the right moment when he should and could boost his orchestra and when to scale it down to give pride of place to vocal effects.

Both singers would appear again in the big romantic scene in the second act of Arabella. Fleming’s clear diction and creamy tones worked to perfection. When she decides to put her jazzy mannerisms aside (as in this evening), one can really understand why she is considered the leading Straussian of her generation. Hampson had to work hard for impact, but blended exquisitely in Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein. The audience would also be treated to the prelude to act III, where Thielemann proved not only to have a superior understanding of the structure of this passage, but also to make it sound consequent, polished, animated and surprisingly beautiful. The Berliner Philharmoniker responded in the great manner during the whole evening. I really can’t wait to hear his Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg this Summer.

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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, which obviously have a central role in Hofmannsthal’s symbology. After 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 glamorous 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…).

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