Author : Jos Hermans
When Hugo von Hofmannsthal succumbed to a stroke on July 15, 1929, two days after his son's suicide, he left behind three acts of Arabella. He had just finished reworking the first act; the dramaturgical weaknesses of the second and third acts waited in vain for his final approval. Nevertheless, Richard Strauss completed the composition. For his opera career, the death of his main librettist meant more than the beginning of a crisis. The operas that followed would never again reach the level of the works that arose from the 20-year collaboration with Von Hofmannsthal.
It seems that Strauss could only be at his best when his librettist was too. Thus it should not surprise us that the first act of Arabella is the strongest of the three. Within Strauss' oeuvre, it testifies of a rare perfection and inspiration. To quote only the highlights: the duet Arabella-Zdenka ("Aber der Richtige"), Mandryka's presentation as a suitor to Count Waldner, the monologue "Mein Elemer" where Arabella allows herself to be carried away by the melancholy of a soloing viola. The second act also contains vintage Strauss: the duet Arabella-Mandryka culminating in "Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein" and the comic interlude starring Die Fiakermilli, a showcase for coloratura sopranos. The third act is a fiasco. After the more than decent prelude, reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier, we are left to wait for the last 10 minutes of the amazing reconciliation finale in which a starring role is reserved for a glass of water (a nod to Tristan and Isolde!)
Arabella held its premiere in Dresden anno 1933. Swastika banners were now flying on the facade of the Semperoper. Jewish intendant Alfred Reucker and the anti-Nazi conductor Fritz Busch, to whom Strauss had dedicated the work, had both been ousted. Hofmannsthal was a seismographer who had sensed what was in the air, Robert Carsen believes. So it is certainly not far-fetched for the director to shift the action to 1938 Vienna, shortly after the Anschluss.
In Gideon Davey's unified set - the lobby of a four-story Viennese hotel with balustrades - the colors red and black of the Reich, predominate. An art deco chandelier dangles from the stage tower, completing the evocation of the zeitgeist. Arabella's three suitors are dressed in the uniform of the SS. It makes perfect sense, then, to see in the closing bars a Nazi mob violently question the happy-ending of Strauss's opera, by pointing guns to Mandryka, the Croatian outsider and love rival of the officers. The zeitgeist will break into the play by three other occasions. Two banners with swastikas can be seen along either side of the stage during the ball of the second act. The Fiakermilli, mouthpiece of the vox populi, dressed in a folkish dirndl plays a pantomime with young peasants. Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk adds her yodeling coloratura effectively. The scenic highlight is reserved for the interlude that normally comments on Zdenka and Matteo's love night but is here enlivened by Philippe Giraudeau's choreography as a street fight between brown shirts and young peasants wearing lederhosen.
While Arabella initially projects all her ideal partner desires onto Mandryka and the somewhat damaged Mandryka doubts her fidelity too easily, the misunderstanding with the key causes both to end up with a deeper understanding of each other. To love another means to learn more about oneself and to accept the other with all his or her weaknesses; this is how you could summarize the play. It takes a subtle musical dramaturgy to let this message sink into the hearts of the audience. That it happens is crucial to the success of the evening.
The voice plays a more prominent role in Arabella than in any other of Strauss's operas, for the orchestra is generally so subdued that it accompanies the voices rather than forming a voice in itself. Unfortunately, I found Markus Poschner's reading to be rough, noisy, and not always transparent. The major flaw in this performance, then, was that the balance between orchestra and soloists was almost never OK. Both sides seemed to be fighting each other. All the soloists sounded overstrained. One has only to slide the dvd of the Götz Friedrich production, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, in the DVD player to realize how much more pleasing this balance was in 2007, when this production was recorded in this very house. In these circumstances it is almost impossible for me to judge the vocal performances of the soloists.
Undoubtedly Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Anett Fritsch are able to sing the parts of the sisters Arabella and Zdenka without forcing their voices. Müller was previously an excellent Zdenka in Florentine Klepper's Salzburg Arabella. I would like to hear both sopranos in a more balanced production one day.
Josef Wagner does not seem to own the cultivated voice and nuancing ability to sing Mandryka like legendary performers as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Hampson did. His duet with Michael Hauenstein as Count Waldner was tiresome.
Pavol Breslik as Matteo also felt emboldened to loud, dramatic outbursts that we are not used to hear from him. In the end, Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk was the only one I could stomach as a vocalist with a natural-sounding voice. Ultimately, it was the voice of the people that was the most convincing.