Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Richard Strauss: Arabella – Met, 1995: Back to the Future

McLaughlin and Te Kanawa
This Metropolitan Opera production of Strauss’ Arabella is top-notch, from the bottom of the orchestra pit to the top of the opulent sets. In between there is believable acting and magnificent singing. 

I went back to this DVD after reviewing the Zurich 2007 production; which stars the wonderful Renee Fleming and Julia Kleiter as the two sisters, but overall is not completely satisfying.  This story really seems to work better in its period setting. Somehow the scandal is more scandalous, and frankly (I cannot believe I am writing this) the whole story is more convincing in this über-traditional, über-literal Otto Schenk production. Clearly, the Met had more financial support than the Zurich Opera had for their 2007 production; the set, costumes, and rich casting just leave Zurich in the dust. 

After the Zurich DVD, I thought, “That was nice, but I understand why it’s less well-known than other Strauss star soprano vehicles.” After this DVD, I thought, “Wow! Why don’t we see this opera more often?” One reason, clearly, is the fiendishly demanding vocal music. It just isn’t easy to round up, all in one place, enough singers who can really sing this music.

Singers portraying Arabella’s three suitors and her parents provide solid, secure support; everyone on stage fully inhabits their role.  The young Natalie Dessay appears in the cameo role of the Fiakermilli. What was Strauss thinking writing such a minor but extravagant coloratura part? Dessay makes the most of her brief appearances, not only tossing out all those notes with no apparent effort, but acting her character, and giving her a full identity. It’s easy to see now why she became such a big star.

And speaking of stars, Kiri te Kanawa presents a mature Arabella but she sings like a goddess (as usual); Marie McLaughlin is a more convincing as a young girl, even dressed as a boy. Together they present a lovely pair of sisters. Christian Thielemann propels the music forward with a characteristic, Viennese flow. David Kuebler as Matteo and Wolfgang Brendel as Mandryka are convincing rivals for Arabella’s affections.  They both are comfortable and secure with Strauss’ high-lying vocal lines; not just getting the notes but making the characters come alive.  Mandryka is sincere in his passion, anger, and repentance, rather than just blustery; and his final reconciliation with Arabella feels inevitable rather than being there because that’s what the script says.

Arabella and Mandryka reconcile.

At the end of the Zurich production, I was mostly just glad the opera was finally over.  At the end of this production, I was grinning like an idiot; thrilled for the two couples who finally connected. I think this is a must-see DVD; you can pick it up at amazon for around 10 to 15 bucks. Not just for Met fans, Kiri fans, and Strauss fans, but for Opera Fans!


  1. I think the Zurich production made some poor choices: 1: Using the 1933 edition which combines Acts II and III. 2: The Danish baritone who is deputizing for Hampson is seriously overparted. Good Looking? Yes, but I couldn't for a minute feature him hunting on his preserve in Croatia. 3: The penny plain mise-en-scene and direction. Yes, I know the family is in financial distress, but did it really need to look as ugly as it did? Would that Fleming could have another go at it to accompany her Ariadne from Baden Baden!

  2. I agree with you, particularly on points 2 and 3. As I mentioned in my review* of that disc, I was quite unhappy with Larsen (but very pleased with Fleming and Kleiter).

    And I feel the set should have gone totally minimal, rather than the community-theater-level stuff they put up. (I am still convinced that hotel lobby door is from Ariadne! Actually that's not a terrible thing. Economizing is good. But looking cheap is bad.)



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