I am sorry not to blog; I have been facing major academic deadlines and decisions every day. When I finish working, I have found myself too spent to consider writing something else. But I saw Arabella at the Met last Friday, and I have thoughts. I enjoy this opera a lot, probably more than it strictly merits. The beatific parts like the Act 1 soprano duet, Act 2 love duet, and last five minutes are, for a Strauss fan, just so good in their extraordinary concentration of what we love about Strauss opera. And even the talkier passages are enlivened with brilliant orchestral details. Hofmannsthal’s libretto is an interesting, subtle allegory of Gründerzeit Austro-Hungarian politics (Austrian Arabella needs to reconcile with Mandryka, the uncouth East). This is something that almost no one seems to notice–probably because it tends to be concealed by the color and expressive directness of Strauss’s music. But I’ll stop. As may be obvious, I’ve “worked on” this piece (as academics say), and you can read that essay later (it isn’t out yet).
This Met revival is, alas, not a particularly good Arabella. It has the odd misfortune to get the single most difficult role unusually right–that would be Michael Volle’s excellent Mandryka–and have issues in the comparatively easy lyric soprano department. Word was that this revival was originally scheduled for the phenomenal Anja Harteros, who withdrew a while ago. Her replacement in the title role, Swedish soprano Malin Byström, was new to me. She certainly has a lovely, warm tone, and the voice is very big in the middle. But her registers are unbalanced, and the warmth stopped around the F sharp at the top of the staff. Alas, Arabella is a role that really depends on easy, beautiful high notes at the big moments, and there Byström suddenly sounded insecure and thin. She is a decent but generic actress, lacking a certain glamor and vulnerability to bring this part off (my friend thought she was matronly–she certainly didn’t seem like the flirt Zdenka calls her).
She didn’t have much help from the pit or rest of the cast. Philippe Auguin’s busy conducting had little sense of the work’s flow, nor did those beatific bits glow as they should. Juliane Banse was a later replacement as Zdenka, and was unhappily cast. I’ve enjoyed her singing in other roles, but honestly her Zdenka days are past her by a decade or so. Her grainy, dark, smallish voice sounded labored, particularly in the higher ranges, which have to be even sweeter and easier than Arabella’s. This is not a difficult role to cast and I wonder why the Met could not locate someone more suitable, even on short notice.
Roberto Saccà similarly sounded underpowered and worn as Matteo. He was nearly sung off the stage by Brian Jagde as third-in-line suitor Elemer. Jagde is a powerful Heldentenor-in-training. I’m not sure if he could sing Matteo–it’s rather high–but I certainly would like to hear him in something where he has more to do. The other supporting roles such as Adelaide, the Fortune Teller, and Waldner were uniformly poorly sung. One suspects that all the good Arabella supporting players are in Salzburg at present. I feel sorry for anyone who is obliged to sing chirpy Fiakermilli, but I still should report that Audrey Luna sounded very nasal.
|“Mandryka, you look dehydrated.”|
The main redeeming singer, however, was Michael Volle as Mandryka. This is an awfully difficult role and almost no one sings it well. (I say this having seen the opera a few times and having seen every Arabella DVD in print and several that aren’t in print. See above, academic work.) Volle does it with ease and character, a solid warm tone and good diction. He’s a bit too comic for my taste–his Mandryka is very much a bumbling, fumbling bumpkin–and reads on the older side (he’s not Bernd Weikl in the Schenk TV movie), but he gives the character texture and life, and his singing has real dignity.
The Otto Schenk production can perhaps be blamed for the dramatic blandness. Productions of this opera tend to tilt towards Strauss’s opulence rather than Hofmannsthal’s grit, and this one is no exception. If the Waldners are so broke, I would suggest to them that they still have a lot of knickknacks they could put in hock. The staging of Act 3 in particular is cluttered and over-busy. (I also think this act also benefits from some cuts–I think this might have been the least-cut Arabella Act 3 I’ve seen.) When a lighting gel fluttered down from the flies during Arabella and Mandryka’s love duet, it would have been a Verfremdungeffekt if we were in certain German opera houses, but here it really wasn’t.
I don’t think I’ve yet seen a fully convincing production of this opera, one which balances the alternating enchantment and motor-like energy of the music with the hardheaded, operetta-like libretto–is it too foolishly optimistic to suggest that the Met try to come up with one should they produce it again? Or to some other opera house: has the often-underrated Claus Guth directed this one yet? He has a real eye for this period, and for the thin line between fantasy and reality. I think he might be your guy.
I also have thoughts about Platée from the other week. More precisely, I want to write about Simone Kermes, because she is something else. Maybe soon!
Strauss, Arabella. Metropolitan Opera, 4/11/14.
Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.