Thursday 24 July 2008

Munich Opera Festival: Arabella, 23 July 2008

Nationaltheater, Munich

Graf Waldner – Alfred Kuhn
Adelaide – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Arabella – Pamela Armstrong
Zdenka – Marlis Petersen
Mandryka – Wolfgang Brendel
Matteo – Will Hartmann
Graf Elemer – Ulrich Reß
Graf Dominik – Christian Rieger
Graf Lamoral – Rüdiger Trebes
Die Fiakermilli – Sine Bundgaard
Eine Kartenaufschlägerin – Heike Grötzinger
Ein Zimmerkellner – Hermann Sapell

Andreas Homoki (producer)
Wolfgang Gussmann (designs, costumes)
Hans Toelstede (lighting)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Andrés Maspéro)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Stefan Soltesz (conductor)

I wish I could respond to Arabella more favourably than I have done so far. Ultimately I cannot grasp what, if anything, is at stake in the work, which I suspect is hampered by Hofmannsthal’s untimely death. Oddly, however, I have tended – as on this occasion – to respond more warmly to the second and third acts, left in draft form, rather than to the apparently completed first act, which seems to me to end rather abruptly. (I am talking as much about the music as the libretto here.) Perhaps I need to see the ‘right’ production; perhaps it requires extraordinary singers. Whatever the cause, I was interested to reacquaint myself with the work yet I remained unconvinced. It is not so much that there is lack of characterisation as that I find it difficult to care much for them – with the exception of Zdenka and Matteo – or indeed for what appears so slender a plot. It does not repel me as Jane Austen does – apologies to her many admirers: I have tried and tried again – but there seems to me something in common.

Alfred Kuhn, after a slightly shaky start, convinced as Count Waldner. He managed to come across as an elderly character without undue sacrifice to musical values. Catherine Wyn-Rogers also impressed as Adelaide. Pamela Armstrong substituted for Anja Harteros in the title role. I do not know how much rehearsal time or indeed notice she had received but she proved a weak Arabella. There were moments when she sang strongly and freely but likewise there were several cases of hesitant singing. Her stage presence was none too strong and she lacked that charm which might well have lifted the work. Marlis Petersen was far better in the lovable trouser-role – at least until the end – of Zdenka. She impressively conveyed the sense of a girl having to act as a boy and that of her character’s oscillation between resentment toward and love for her favoured sister. Will Hartmann as Matteo was not flattered by his odd costume – he resembled a bell boy more than an officer – but he made a good deal of his role. Wolfgang Brendel presented a strong, if somewhat rough-and-ready, performance as Mandryka. I did not find him in any sense charming, but I wonder how much of that is to be attributed to the work itself. I find it difficult to care about the Fiakermilli – surely a re-re-heating of Zerbinetta – but Sine Bundgaard did what she could with the role and mostly handled her coloratura well. Arabella’s suitors (Ulrich Reß, Christian Rieger, and Rüdiger Trebes) were strongly cast.

Stefan Soltesz’s conducting did not make a great impression either way. In general, he kept the action flowing, but there were moments when I thought a fleeter touch would have paid off. The orchestra itself sounded splendid, not least the sweet-toned strings and the properly Mozartian woodwind. Sebastian Herberg’s viola solo was a model of its kind. The orchestral prelude to the third act was simply ravishing.

I did not especially care for the production. It was not at all clear to me why the action should take place in the same location for each act, nor why a bed should be at its centre. It is just about comprehensible, although a little odd, that there might be a modest single bed or indeed any bed whatsoever in the drawing-room of the Waldners’ hotel suite, but I have no idea why it should be present in the lobby of that hotel in the third act, let alone at the centre of the Coachmen’s Ball in the second. Little more was done with this item of furniture other than have the elderly count and his countess sit down on it from time to time. The confusion of place was considerable, without the trade-off of unity that can sometimes result from one set for an entire drama. Mandryka showered his money around rather too often and rather too aimlessly for anything really to be gleaned from his deeds. It is difficult to say much else concerning the stage action, but I do not think that it helped.