For an opera that premiered in the fateful year of 1933, Richard Strauss’s Arabella tries very hard to capture the nostalgic spirit of the composer’s masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, which first graced audiences more than twenty years earlier. If Arabella’s story of an impoverished noble family marrying off its daughter to a stranger with whom she falls in love at first sight is a naturally happy one, the circumstances of the opera’s premiere were not. Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmansthall left the text unfinished at the time of his sudden death in 1929, just two days after his son committed suicide. The July 1933 premiere came only a few months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany. Nazi political directives in the cultural sphere had already led to the dismissal of the premiere’s conductor Fritz Busch. Strauss only salvaged the situation by using this disruption to secure the appointment of his own preferred artists to carry on. Busch was replaced by Clemens Krauss, in whom Strauss justifiably put much faith, and Viorica Ursuleac, who would later become Krauss’s wife, created the opera’s title role. Nevertheless, Arabella never rose to the top tier of the Strauss repertoire. Apart from a burst of international performances (and the Decca/London recording) starring Lisa della Casa, the opera has languished until the near present. The Paris opera staged it for the first time in 1981, despite the direction’s slight bent for recent German works during the World War II occupation.
Only the superb Straussian talent of Renee Fleming, one of the few singers today who merits the diva mantle, seems to give Arabella much currency. Indeed, her performance in Paris’s new production by Marco Arturo Marelli proved why this is the case. Possessed of a voice that she herself describes as fitting Strauss’s music “like a glove,” Fleming has the ability to deliver both the dramatic complexities of the composer’s major characters and float the sumptuous notes needed to reconcile the competing harmonies of his demanding scores. The first act narration “Aber der Richtige,” a soulful meditation on meeting the love of her life, sounded reticent, perhaps even a bit devoiced, but the vigorous passion of her second and third act singing more than made up for this deficiency. I last heard Fleming in the role eleven years ago, in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production. She has lost some of the thrilled girlishness the role demands, but her dramatic effect has only strengthened, with the addition of intriguing nuances that few other singers can match.
Beyond the title role, the cast functions essentially as an ensemble in a comedy of manners. Arabella’s true love Mandryka came out in fine form in the capable singing and acting of Michael Volle. A certain roughness on the vocal edges only added to the character’s allure when contrasted to the suave facilities of Arabella’s callow suitors. The promising young German soprano Genia Kuhmeier brought brilliance to the strange role of Zdenka, Arabella’s sister who has been raised as a boy to economize the family finances. Zdenka’s beloved Matteo, himself a rejected suitor of Arabella, emerged convincingly thanks to the talented tenor Joseph Kaiser. His portrayal sounded nobler and less pathetic than is usually the case. Arabella’s faded aristocratic parents, Count Waldner and Adelaide, handsomely fell to veteran bass Kurt Rydl, whose aging voice fit the role to perfection, and to mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel, whose Herodias in Strauss’s Salome last September launched what has been an astoundingly entertaining season of opera in Paris. Philippe Jordan carried the orchestra with a flair and determination that has justifiably distinguished him as one of the most exciting young conductors at work today.
Marelli’s production saved the opera from late Romantic Viennese kitsch with an imaginative staging based on revolving wall segments and a rotating floor that allow swift changes of scene and mood while sustaining dramatic tension. The visual effect is dominated by white and sky blue, suggesting the heavenly aspirations of Arabella’s passions. A particularly intriguing innovation freezes the action at end of the first act, when Mandryka dreams of finally meeting Arabella, only to have it resume seamlessly at the beginning of Act II, when the newly introduced couple pledge their love to each other before Arabella goes off to dump her suitors. This fine effort stands as the last in a series of fine new productions presented this season. We can only hope 2012-2013 is as generous to Paris’s deserving audience.
– Paul du Quenoy