Review – Arabella (Opéra Bastille, Sunday 17 June 2012)
Arabella – Renée Fleming
Mandryka – Michael Volle
Zdenka – Julia Kleiter
Adelaide – Doris Soffel
Graf Waldner – Kurt Rydl
Matteo – Joseph Kaiser
Iride Martinez – The Fiakermilli
Director – Marco Arturo Martelli
Lighting – Friedrich Eggert
Costumes – Dagmar Niefind
Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris
Conductor – Philippe Jordan
Twice in the course of Richard Strauss’ opera Arabella – his final collaboration with Hugo von Hoffmansthal – the protagonists make a reference to a glass of water. In the First Act Mandryka relates how a potential bride would offer a glass of water drawn from her father’s well and present it to her prospective husband, and in the Third Act Arabella offers him the said glass of water as an act of both forgiveness and acceptance.
If the water drawn was a reflection of this production, the glass would only have been half full.
A shame as a single element disappointed throughout – Philippe Jordan and the Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris.
Arabella is directly evolved from the lyricism of Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Die Äegiptische Helena, the chamber music sensibilities of Ariadne auf Naxos and the more conversational style of Intermezzo.
Therefore to be successful, it has to be conducted with an understanding of all the elements that Strauss had reached at this stylistic crossroads – not only of the nuances in the orchestration and the instrumental colour with which the opera is richly imbued but just as importantly a sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the vocal line.
Only then can Arabella be done full justice.
At this particular performance, Philippe Jordan disappointingly did not deliver. Not only did he conduct with metronomic precision but his tempi always felt a fraction too fast. And he failed to draw the magnificent playing I am accustomed to from this orchestra. On the whole they were lacklustre with none of the depth or colour required in every Strauss opera.
And Jordan’s unsympathetic performance in the pit directly impacted on the singers at times.
Renée Fleming sang the title role. As I have said before Renée Fleming is one of the leading – if not pre-eminent – Strauss sopranos performing today. Over the last few years her voice has developed an even more beautiful and burnished tone without any sense of sacrifice in flexibility or evenness throughout her range. I think back most recently to her Ariadne in Baden Baden under Thielemann or her concert performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach.
Clearly with a sensitive and intuitive partner in the pit, Ms Fleming is a formidable singer. However as Jordan failed to give her the space or opportunity to spin out this heroine’s lines it took a while for her to warm up. There were one or two moments very early on where as a result, I believe, of trying to get Jordan to be more expansive she unexpectedly over emphasised individual syllables. And some of those moments which demanded a greater freedom of tempo – I talk here of her duets with Zdenka and Mandryka in the First Act respectively and more crucially, in the close scene at Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – the magic was undermined. With a less accomplished singer those moments might well have been tarnished or lost altogether. Fortunately for the audience, Ms Fleming has the voice , technique, musicianship and natural affinity for Strauss to carry through. As a result her Arabella was marvellous.
Having seen Michael Volle as Kurwenal in Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde for Covent Garden I was impressed by his Mandryka which was strong both vocally and character-wise. With his rich baritone he delivered a role of intelligence and musicianship and while he may have slightly tired towards the end, he was a suitably dramatic and vocal foil to Fleming’s Arabella.
Both Julia Kleiter and Joseph Kaiser are new singers to me but they performed outstandingly as Zdenka and Matteo respectively. Again, Jordan’s rushed tempi and anti-lyrical inflexibility caused Ms Kleiter to pinch a few of her higher notes but her voice has a bell-like silvery tone. Kaiser has a pleasing tenor with suitable heft. A future Bacchus perhaps? Arabella’s parents – Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel – completed the central ensemble, giving these two characters who are more often than not simply two-dimensional that added depth and human side. Never have I heard Adelaide sound so weary as when she expresses disappointment in her husband to Mandryka. In a single moment. Outstanding.
The remaining cast were good, the only disappointment being the Fiakermilli of Iride Martinez. While she may have had the agility for the coloratura, her voice was simply too thin and at times not only pinched but awry of pitch as well.
Having seen what I believe to have been Marco Arturo Martelli’s Tristan und Isolde ‘in a box’ as it were in Dresden, I was not surprised that he placed the entire opera within a single set, relying on revolving walls to create the different scenes. It was a nice touch when they revolved revealing sky to imply a balcony or window, but in the ball scene the lighting was too simplistic. It reminded me more of the coloured block lighting used by department stores or bars to create a sense of ambience. And what a shame that the only scenic backdrop was in the final act.
I can never make up my mind with the current directorial affectation for onstage action before the opera proper starts. Sometimes it works, particularly in the case of an overture. Here it didn’t. Having lackeys remove furniture as the audience entered the auditorium lacked any impact as it was too drawn out. And why was nothing made of the increasingly large pile of bills on the table. Also, in the original aren’t the Waldner’s staying in a hotel in Vienna?
But most disappointing was the block – quite literally – of stairs at the end. It was almost as if they were an afterthought. I’m not asking for a sweeping staircase complete with ornate balustrade, but any sense of potential drama having Arabella come down this flight of stairs was lost.
Perhaps Arabella is slightly too intimate an opera for a stage the size of that at Opéra Bastille? At times it seemed that there were large expanses of empty space in an opera that is so often focused on one or two singers and that Martelli didn’t know how to move his singers across it. His use of alter-Arabellas at the end if the Second Act was almost inspired. But the revolving walls had me worried that the dancers would waltz into them or, considering there wasn’t enough depth, that they would careen into one another. Either plenty of practice or luck meant there were no collisions but I sensed more than a few near misses.
And one final distraction worth mentioning. I am pretty sure that I spied Peter Gelb in the audience. He took his seat as the orchestra started and I am pretty sure that The Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning was trying to spot if he had returned after the interval. He didn’t. Perhaps he realised this production of Arabella wasn’t for his own House or he was on the lookout for a new baton for the Met.
Ultimately this production of Arabella belonged to the singers. Their musicianship and sense of ensemble ensured that their performances were incredibly strong. The few fault lines that did appear momentarily in their performances had more to do with what was – or was not – going on in the pit. Jordan was single-mindedly an unsympathetic Straussian from beginning to end, never once revelling in the wonderful lyricism that Richard Strauss had written on every single page of this score.
So if Gelb was indeed looking for a future baton, Jordan did himself no favours with this performance.