Richard Strauss’ Arabella is a bit of a peculiarity. The music is top notch Strauss and the libretto is by von Hofmannsthal so it ought to be quite superb. It doesn’t quite get there though. It’s hard not to think that if von Hofmannsthal had lived a little longer he would have tightened up the libretto. Act 1 works fine but Acts 2 and 3 seem rather contrived and could definitely use a few cuts. I’m not sure that the whole Fiakermilli thing works either. It’s almost as if Prince Orlofsky’s party mislaid Johann and found Richard by accident. That said there is some very beautiful music. Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einem gibt is going straight onto my list of top soprano duets.
In Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production, filmed at the Wiener Staatsoper in 2012, the setting has been updated from the 1860s to the 1920s. The storyline doesn’t really work with the changed setting but it does give the director the opportunity to add a lot of transvestites and scantily clad girls. Based on opera productions I’ve seen recently, Vienna between the wars seems to have had an awful lot of both. It also produces one of the oddest bits of military tailoring I’ve seen in an opera. The uniform Michael Schade wears is almost worth a whole post on. In any event our credulity is stretched far more by the plot than the setting.
As this work isn’t all that well known, maybe a plot summary would be useful. Count and countess Waldner are relatively impoverished aristocrats. They have two daughters; the beautiful Arabella and the tomboyish Zdenka. To save cash they are bringing Zdenka up as a boy. Arabella has lots of suitors including the cavalry lieutenant Matteo. None of them are, however, rich enough so the count sends a letter to his old cavalry buddy Mandryka, who is rolling in it, enclosing a photo of Arabella. Mandryka has died and been succeeded by his nephew. He gets the letter while being mauled by a bear (and judging by his subsequent behaviour, quite possibly is turned into a werebear, at least according to the lemur). He gets infatuated with Arabella while recovering from his wounds and, as soon as he can, heads off to Vienna to court Arabella. It’s love at first sight and they get engaged. Then there’s a ball at which Arabella plans to dance her last night as a free woman away. Zdenka, who is secretly in love with Matteo, who thinks Zdenka/o is his bestie, decides that Arabella getting hitched will probably cause Matteo to shoot himself so arranges for Matteo to get the key of what he thinks is Arabella’s room. Mandryka overhears this and arrives back at the hotel to find a very pleased-with-himself-Matteo having a bizarre conversation with a very bemused Arabella. It takes forever to get to the conclusion that presents itself rather obviously when Zdenka throws herself down the stairs dressed as a woman. In the meantime several duels are almost fought. Finally everybody is reconciled. Matteo gets engaged to Zdenka. Mandryka and Arabella forgive each other. And the transvestites and scantily clad girls finally slope off.
So you can see the problem in staging this effectively. Add to that a requirement for six principals who can really sing Strauss and five other roles that are smaller but quite demanding and one can see why this isn’t produced all that often. Fortunately here the cast is up to the demands. Arabella is Emily Magee and she is excellent; pretty much in the Fleming or Pieczonka class in this rep. Mandryka is the rather gruff but stylish Tomasz Konieczny. The two of them are glorious together in their big second act duet and their big final number. Zdenka is sung by the cutely androgynous and very personable Genia Kühmeier. Michael Schade is a very stylish and amusing Matteo. The parents are equally well played by Wolfgang Bankl and Zoryana Kushpler. I wasn’t quite so taken with Fiakermilli of Daniela Fally but I’m not sure whether it was her singing or the rather ridiculous music she gets that was the problem. The other minor roles are all well handled. Franz Welser Most conducts and gets the sort of drive and rhythmic precision that I’ve come to associate, positively, with Andrew Davies.
Video direction is by Don Kent and it’s not great. This is an opera of relationships so close ups aren’t a bad thing but there are things one just should not do. Focussing on one singer during a big duet so we don’t see the reaction of the other is just dumb and even with an opera of this type it’s helpful to get enough setting shots to have an idea of context. At least he goes easy on the weird angles and special effects. The picture, on Blu-ray, is terrific and the DTS-HD MA sound track is very vivid. The stereo isn’t so good for some reason and even when listening on ‘phones I preferred the surround track. There are no bonusses on the disk but the booklet, besides track listing and synopsis, has a useful essay on the Strauss/von Hofmannsthal collaboration. The subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
This may not be Strauss’ best opera but it’s pretty good and the performances here make this well worth a look and listen.