Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming teamed up for Strauss’ Arabella at the 2014 Salzburg Osterfestspiel. The production is directed by Florentine Klepper and it’s set late 19th/early 20th century and is conventional in many ways though there are a few interesting touches. There may be more than a few but video director Brian Large focusses quite relentlessly on the singers 99% of the time so it’s hard to tell. I noticed a few things. The hotel set in Act 1 is multi-room but it’s very rare that we see other than the room the principal action is in so who knows what might have been going on. There’s a use of body doubles during the Act 2 duet to create a sort of “portrait” of Mandryka and Arabella that broods over the stage for the rest of the act. The fortune teller reappears with the “trouble” card during the “key” scene. The whole Fiakermilli episode is difficult to interpret because the video gives such a fragmentary view of it. There’s certainly a couple of suggestive giant dolls. Otherwise this scene just comes off as pretty crude and lame. I suspect that there may be much going on here that isn’t on the video. This all tends to reinforce the weaknesses of the second half of Act 2 and the start of Act 3 which certainly are not Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s best work.
Fortunately there are some good performances. Hampson I think is the standout. His beautiful voice and impeccable German might almost be too civilized for Mandryka but he manages to inject just enough of the feudal chieftain from the wilds to make it work. Fleming sings terrifically and acts better than in a lot of things I’ve seen her in. It’s a beautiful and touching performance but, again, perhaps a little too poised and elegant and a bit mature? The “youngsters”; Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Zdenka and Daniel Behle as Matteo, make up for any over sophistication in the senior pair. They are effervescent, youthful and charming. The elder Waldners; Albert Dohmen and Gabriela Beńačkovà, aren’t at all bad either. The one performance I didn’t care for was Daniela Fally’s Fiakermilli. I found it coarse and quite harsh vocally. Now, that may have been a deliberate part of the stage production but it didn’t play well on video. Lastly but not leastly there’s the conducting of Christian Thielemann and the playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden. It’s glorious and terribly Straussian; lush, detailed, ecstatic.
I’ve alluded to Brian Large’s contribution earlier. It’s typical of his work. Mostly it seems designed for 1970s television. Only very occasionally do we see the whole stage or even a decent chunk of it. The only upside to this is that it means the DVD picture is perfectly adequate whereas I suspect if Tiziano Mancini had been filming it would have seriously overtaxed DVD video quality. That said, this was filmed in HD and released on Blu-ray so that problem would have been easy to solve! Sound too (DTS 5.1 and LPCM 2.0) is quite acceptable but with orchestral playing as good as this why wouldn’t one want the extra detail of Blu-ray? There are no extras on the disk and the booklet was missing on my copy. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
Reservations aside, this is not a bad disk at all and there are only a couple of modern video recordings of Arabella available on Blu-ray. I don’t think it’s easy to choose between them. The 2012 Vienna recording is also well cast and one could argue that Tomasz Konieczny is a more idiomatic Mandryka than Hampson. That production is (or at least seems to be) a bit busier and more idea driven, which some will see as a plus and some will not. Both suffer from less than ideal video direction but both are well conducted. Choosing between them is, I think, a matter of personal preference.