OPERA NEWS - Arabella
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Bavarian State Opera

In Review Munich Arabella lg 915
Magnificent: Harteros as Arabella
© Wilfried Hösl

THERE IS ALWAYS something special about a new Richard Strauss production in Munich’s Nationaltheater, the composer’s hometown house. Andreas Dresen’s new staging of Strauss’s Arabella for the Bavarian State Opera, seen on its first evening (July 6), promised much and delivered even more. Everything fell into place: Dresen paid absolute attention to Strauss’s music and Hofmannsthal’s text; Philippe Jordan’s conducting and the playing of the Staatsorchester were exemplary; and the singing was nothing short of extraordinary. One left the theater walking on air, with the feeling that one had been transported into another world.

Dresen updated the setting from the Vienna of the 1860s to the same city in the 1920s — the time of the First Republic of Austria, an era of doubt and financial desperation for families such as the Waldners. The coziness of the Austro–Hungarian Empire was gone. This changed the way the title character was able to act and react: in Dresen’s conception, Arabella has doubts about herself and her future. Her despair at her destiny — she must marry to save her family — is not covered up by Viennese pseudo-gentility. Arabella’s coquettish nature, as well as her vanity, is on display in Act I. This interpretation of the character gives Arabella room to grow, to mature into a woman who understands her own heart. 

Dresen took a few liberties in his staging, but they proved appropriate. When Arabella lovingly threw the water from the symbolic glass into Mandryka’s face, the latter was outraged and surprised, then humbled and even more in love because he simply got what he deserved — and he knew it. Dresen’s Mandryka chose a more modern woman than Hofmannsthal might have imagined, but it was clear that he would be happy with his choice and the adventure that his future with this Arabella would bring. 

The sets, by Mathias Fischer-Dieskau (son of baritone Dietrich, a noted Mandryka in the 1960s), are a mixture of Viennese 1920s Jugendstil and the Expressionism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. An extremely long stairway of fifty steps, separated by a small landing, leads to nowhere — in effect, to and from uncertainty. It is not a straight stairway, and it is intersected in the middle by a similar construction at a contorted angle. It is present in somewhat different form in Act II, and it dominated, as it must, the whole of Act III. 

The wonderful 1920s-style costumes by Sabine Greunig added much to the atmosphere of the production. The Carnival ball in Act II was as lascivious as the free-wheeling, sexually liberated ’20s would have demanded: the Fiakermilli was true to the real-life character of the same name, who was famous for her leather outfits, her riding crop and her lack of sexual restraint. 

Anja Harteros was a magnificent Arabella. Her personality, including the way she comported herself, the way she wore her costumes and the way she communicated her emotions to the audience, was every bit as compelling as those of the most fascinating Arabellas of the past. Harteros’s “Aber der Richtige,” surely one of Strauss’s most unforgettable melodies, was so heartfelt and beautifully phrased that it brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience. Her Act II duet with Mandryka, “Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein,” was felt as one long phrase in a ravishing piano, with Arabella seated on the steps and Mandryka standing at her side. 

Thomas J. Mayer was a strong, full-voiced Mandryka whose expressive singing enabled him to paint a true vocal and dramatic picture of his role — a role, by the way, that seems to suit him better than Wotan, one of his more prominent recent assignments at Bavarian State Opera. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was a sensational Zdenka, her crystalline soprano carrying throughout her entire range, her top notes sparkling, her vulnerability compelling and touching. 

Both Waldners were superbly cast. Veteran Kurt Rydl, employing a thick Viennese accent, was an alternately pompous, bilious or just plain funny Count, and Doris Soffel, disheveled in a purple pajama-like suit in Act I and unbelievably elegant in her Act II white ball outfit, used her rich alto to enhance the role of the harried Countess Adelaide. Tenor Joseph Kaiser had some problems with the barbarously high-lying tessitura of Matteo, but his lovely voice held him in good stead. As Count Elemer, tenor Dean Power gave his best local performance to date.  Andrea Borghini was a sturdy Count Dominik, and Steven Humes showed remarkable vocal timbre as Count Lamoral. Soprano Eir Inderhaug coped well with the nearly impossible role of Fiakermilli, making her character a dominating presence in Act II. 

The orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera has always had a knack for the music of Richard Strauss — the composer’s own father was once a member of the band — and this performance underscored the affinity. Every nuance of the score was splendidly played — and superbly conducted by Jordan. At the end, the entire cast met with long, unanimous jubilation, and with the exception of a few lonely boo-birds, the production team was greeted with loud cheering. —Jeffrey A. Leipsic

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