Arabella, Richard Strauss
7th February, 2009
I have long wondered why Strauss’s later operas have not always been considered as “serious” as either his earlier works or the works of some of his rivals, notably Wagner. Surely, Elektra and Salome are recklessly shocking and passionate creations, but Strauss’s later, more docile pieces are still richly complex, beautiful, and psychologically probing. I’ve come to the conclusion that Strauss has been underrated because he does not apologize for putting the female at the center of his dramas: not just the epic martyrs we commonly find in opera, but actual women: conflicted, imperfect, loving, often witty, sometimes silly. Strauss is the Jane Austen of opera, and Arabella Waldner is his Elizabeth Bennett. Happily for Hamburg’s recent production of Arabella, they have a worthy heroine in the brilliant Miriam Gordon-Stewart, who transfixes in the title role by giving us a debutante who is also a real woman.
Hamburg’s new (2008) Arabella is about as straightforward and traditional a production one is likely to find anywhere these days, and for the most part, director Sven-Eric Bechtolf leaves the ambiguity of von Hoffmannsthal’s libretto intact, leaving any interpretation up to the individual performers and the audience. This is not necessarily a criticism, though some of the humor in this “comedy” is surely lost for lack of more precise dramatic structure or timing. It looks good, though, the costumes by Marianne Glittenberg are classy yet fresh, and the Art Deco chic (set in the 1920’s, replete with a Josephine Baker stand-in, jazz bands, etc.) glows with the same metallic sheen as the aristocratic yet insolvent Waldner family itself.
The actress who plays Arabella faces the challenge of conveying a young woman who is utterly of her family’s High Society world, yet who has moments of ironic detachment from it, and a longing to be free from it. The man she falls for, a country land-baron from the East named Mandryka, provides the ticket for her escape into another realm, of simplicity and sincerity. She tells him, “You seem to bring another atmosphere into the room with you”. Strauss knows how to make us believe in love at first sight (think of the otherworldly sound of The Presentation of the Rose in Der Rosenkavalier) and he does it here with the simplicity of a folk-melody that is inserted into the otherwise decadently lush musical texture whenever Arabella speaks of her vision of finding her perfect love.
Ms. Gordon-Stewart, as Arabella, is able to find a remarkable variety of colors in her voice, which possesses the necessary size and presence for the role, but also has an immediacy and clarity - rare in big voices - that suits the character’s youth and purity of spirit.
Thomas Mayer, as Mandryka, also gave a very committed, if somewhat more generic, performance. He certainly looked the part, and has a warm baritone with a great top, though it tended to sound a bit constricted and did not always project above the orchestra as one would have liked.
Cornelius Meister, the very young Maestro, did manage to keep the very busy orchestra down for the most part, and held things together (especially once he seemed to get into a groove in the later acts) reasonably well. His conducting could have benefited from a little more breathing room and give and take, but it did have sustained energy and moments of inspired synergy.
Kari Postma, as an adorable Zdenka, has a beautiful lyric sound and conveyed the right tone of adolescent sincerity. Sometimes I wanted a little more bite from her (especially from her diction), but her energy and presence made up for this. The famous Act I duet with Arabella was breathtaking: tender and spontaneous.
The smaller roles in Arabella are more or less caricatures, the absurd, self-absorbed oligarchy of Vienna. The singers in these roles succeeded to greater and lesser degrees inasmuch as they embraced the satire. Stand-outs included the mother Adelaide, played with a bored sense of privilege and sung with ease by Katja Pieweck; the agile-voiced Louise Fribo as the party-girl “Fiakermilli”, whose descent into angry drunkenness in the wee hours of the Carnival party was highly amusing; and Jürgen Sacher, who was utterly convincing as the foppish Count Elemer.
The director, whose touch could seem a bit too light overall, had at least taken care to specifically stage the many supernumeraries, who were put to effective use in the second and third acts as Carnival revelers and hotel staff, creating a fluid backdrop of self-indulgent libertinism.
After a long night of drinking, dancing, and fighting (the hungover partygoers hunched over on the staircase at the back of the stage), the clear glass of water that Mandryka and Arabella share as a symbol of their reconciliation and betrothal is refreshing indeed. We too feel our heroine’s longing for the authentic, and we share her gratitude at having been granted, through her inspired performance, a few blessed drafts of it.