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Arabella

PARIS
Opéra National de Paris
6/20/12

In Review Paris Arabella lg 912
Sister Straussians: Kleiter and Fleming, Zdenka and Arabella in Paris
© Opéra National de Paris/Ian Patrick 2012

The return of Renée Fleming to the Paris Opera was celebrated with the final new production of the season, Arabella (seen June 20). The staging and design of the Strauss opera were by Marco Arturo Marelli, and the production was conducted by the company’s music director, Philippe Jordan.

The final collaboration between the composer and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arabella had its premiere at Dresden in July 1933, less than four months after the passage of the Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act) that began Hitler’s dictatorship. Arabella is a bittersweet comedy of a class-ridden social system in terminal decline, and it is possible to find more depth in it than Marelli attempted. In this production, the distracting revolving set gave no sense of time or place — just a vague symbol of fluctuating destiny. The empty, impoverished life of the Waldners needed a more vivid presentation than was provided by the naked stage of the Bastille, which was not convincing as either hotel or home. Although the story was told with aesthetic precision and generally well acted — the collection of look-alike dancing Arabellas at the ball was a witty touch — it was difficult to react with more than a Gallic shrug of indifference to the work of the director.

The evening was salvaged by fine singing and exceptional playing by the orchestra. Jordan’s work continues to be impressive, and the Paris ensemble sounds in good heart. Jordan’s style is one of luminous clarity of texture and plastic beauty, coupled with the fine pacing of a master technician. The only elements that were seriously lacking for his Arabella were wit and sparkle. This evening of lush orchestral elegance badly needed an occasional smile, absent even from soprano Iride Martinez’s accurately sung Fiakermilli polka.

Fleming’s return to the house for her first local outing as Arabella was greeted with rapturous enthusiasm. Her voice did not project well in the conversational music of Act I, and some listeners were quick to point out a midrange loss of power, but the problem was the soprano’s mushy German diction. One has only to listen to the role’s creator, Viorica Ursuleac (“die treueste aller Treuen,” as Strauss said of his favorite soprano), to hear how much more can be found in the conversational scenes of the opera through pointed use of the text. It must be said, however, that what Ursuleac lacked — and what brought the Paris audience to its feet — is the creamy soprano tone with which Fleming fills the soaring lyrical phrases. Her singing of the final duet with Michael Volle’s Mandryka was of incandescent beauty, although Fleming’s bland, smiling interpretation was in sharp contrast with the detailed dramatic performance of Volle as the boorish Mandryka. His baritone was full and persuasive, and he accepted his relationship-sealing glass of water with panache.

The cast was without weakness, especially the exceptionally well sung Zdenka of soprano Julia Kleiter, who avoided any cute cross-dressing mannerisms and brought emotional truth to the role of Arabella’s sister, whose love letters to Matteo — strongly sung here by Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser — almost undermine her sister’s quest for the right man. Their parents, Count Waldner and his wife, Adelaide, were in the expert hands of veterans, bass Kurt Rydl and mezzo Doris Soffel. Rydl spoke more than he sang, but he could have given a German lesson to his eldest daughter, while Soffel was delightful in her flirting with the handsome young Dominik of promising baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer. spacer 

STEPHEN J. MUDGE

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