The Royal Opera – Arabella [Mattila & Hampson]

Arabella – an opera in three acts to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Arabella – Karita Mattila
Zdenka – Barbara Bonney
Mandryka – Thomas Hampson
Matteo – Raymond Very
Adelaide – Cornelia Kallisch
Count Waldner – Artur Korn
Fortune-teller – Mary Lloyd-Davies
Count Elemer – John Daszak
Count Dominik – Quentin Hayes
Count Lamoral – Iain Peterson
The Fiakermilli – Diana Damrau

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Christoph von Dohnányi

Peter Mussbach – director
Erich Wonder – sets
Andrea Schmidt-Futterer – costumes
Alexander Koppelmann – lighting
Axel Bott – dramaturgy

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 May, 2004
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The sequence of Richard Strauss operas after World War One has tended to be represented as a progressive musical decline, the emergence of Capriccio in the early 1940s a qualitative bookend to a canon which had not been at a genuine high since Die Frau ohne Schatten some quarter-century earlier. The reality is considerably less clear-cut, and yet – even if one accepts the considerable case for the composer moving into a new, more overtly Classical phase with his operas of the 1930s – there remains the problem of the trilogy from the previous decade, in which Strauss’s collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal proved less catalytic to an inspired outcome then previously.

After Strauss had largely rewritten the collaborative rules in the often vapidly indulgent Intermezzo, and Hofmannsthal had been given his head in the often opaque symbolism of Die Aegyptische Helena, the prospects for what became Arabella were not exactly auspicious. Indeed, the question as to whether the librettist’s untimely death – in July 1929 – came at the point when the text itself had been finalised or merely saved Strauss the trouble of haranguing his creative sparring further is a moot point, for while the libretto as it was set is coherent in its dramatic follow-through, the focal point is far from definite. By the same token that Janáček’s Jenufa was originally known as ‘Her Foster Daughter’, might Arabella have been more accurately called ‘Ihre jüngere Schwester’?

The question is relevant because Zdenka, the trousered younger sister absent for the whole of Act Two and only tacitly present for much of Act Three, is in fact the architect of the scenario which unfolds – a mirror process, if you like, to that of the Marschallin’s role in Der Rosenkavalier. This does not mean that Arabella herself lacks dramatic presence, only that her role in proceedings is essentially a passive one – however much she may dominate the stage through her sheer vocal presence.

And dominate the stage is what Karita Mattila does, with a vocal artistry and ensemble-acting that make hers a well-nigh ideal assumption of the role. The set pieces in the outer acts are delineated with exquisite detail and artlessly expressive phrasing, yet never at the expense of separating the character from the often amusing goings-on around her. Strauss had pressed Hofmannsthal to make the character emotionally more sympathetic than the ‘ice queen’ she had at first seemed: Mattila ensures that integrity of manner shines through without narcissism.

The role of Zdenka is more problematic – partly on account of motivating the action, while playing the part of a younger sister whose pretence of masculinity is so as not to embarrass her impoverished parents. Contrived maybe, but the plot as it evolves has much to say about the poles of appearance and reality in an overtly materialistic society – now as then. Barbara Bonney, moreover, has long been established as one of the soprano voices of her generation: here she demonstrates a grasp of dramatic acting that impresses through its understatement and focus on the situation at hand, such as more than compensates for some falling off of purity in her voice itself.

Would that one could say the same for Thomas Hampson. His baritonal resonance and stage-presence are as impressive as ever, but a tendency to force his vocal acting has increased noticeably since a commanding Amfortas in the Royal Opera’s Parsifal a few years back. Admittedly the role of Mandryka is hardly as engrossing. Mysterious Slavic figure from the nether regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire he may be, but his directness and consequent naïveté are of interest only in as much as they throw the opera’s setting into some degree of relief. His inebriated tirades at the close of Act Two and during Act Three are hardly the stuff of great music, and Hampson’s over-projection fails to make his part less two-dimensional any more than it makes it seem less stereotypical.

The remaining roles are well taken, both in themselves and to the extent that they complement each other in what is, in many respects, the first of Strauss’s genuinely ensemble operas. In particular, Cornelia Kallisch makes a properly exasperated Adelaide: overshadowing the put-upon Artur Korn as her husband Waldner, so that it becomes hard to imagine him being allowed to gamble away the family fortune. Raymond Very is eloquent as the luckless Matteo, fruitlessly in love with one sister so that the other can draw him into an exchange of letters and dupe him into sleeping with her – facilitating a ‘happy ending’ such as Da Ponte might have been pleased to effect. John Daszak is personable as the only one of Arabella’s suitors to be ‘fleshed out’, leaving Quentin Hayes and Iain Paterson to play the other two as modish freaks. Mary-Lloyd Davies is a fetchingly prudish Fortune-teller; Diana Damrau a scintillating Fiakermilli whom the production largely reduces to a side-show such as no self-respecting nobleman – even one as guileless as Mandryka – would contemplate seducing.

Peter Mussbach’s production, first seen at the Châtelet two years ago, has many virtues – not least the ‘period department store’ set design of Erich Wonder, all Art Deco chic and insinuation such that the curving stairways and balconies serve admirably both as hotel interior and ballroom antechamber. A rendering of inter-war European decadence better poised between the 1860s setting as conceived by Hofmannsthal, and our present-day reality, would be hard to imagine. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes point up the decadent aura, but Alexander Koppelmann’s lighting could have made more of the many intriguing angles at which the protagonists often find themselves positioned. Axel Bott’s movement makes realistic use of stage space, but his routine for the bell-boys becomes tiresome and irritating: surely even mainstream opera audiences now consider the ‘moonwalk’ as passé?

No such criticism could be levelled at Christoph von Dohnányi. A seasoned Strauss conductor, maybe most at home in the opera house, his grasp of the interplay between voices and instruments could hardly be bettered; nor could his handling of the requirements of clarity and expressiveness – essential if the opera is to hold the attention as well as please the senses. A few approximate entries aside (on this particular night), the orchestra’s response is as finely-honed as one could expect to hear today: enhancing an opera which has had a distinguished track-record at Covent Garden ever since its UK premiere here 70 years ago.

Much had been made of this opera as a latter-day counterpart to Rosenkavalier. Romantic comedies aside, they have relatively little in common. Above all, the Strauss who shocked progressive circles with a seeming volte-face was not the Strauss who composed Arabella at the same time Schoenberg was working on Moses und Aron and Stravinsky was completing Symphony of Psalms. Taken on its own terms, however, Arabella is demonstrably more than an opulent ‘last fling’ – revealing unexpected degrees of subtlety and inwardness, and drawing a fine line between bourgeois comedy and social satire. Perhaps Strauss’s era of revivified Classicism begins earlier than might have been supposed.

  • The performance reviewed above took place on 27 May; the first night was on 21 May, the second on the 24th
  • Remaining performances: June 1, 5, 7, 9 & 12
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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