21 May 2016 | TheLittleSongbird
The weakest Arabella on DVD, though with some great assets
This is saying a lot actually, seeing as the Met, with Kiri Te Kanawa, and Glyndebourne, with Ashley Putnam, productions and the 1977 film with Gundula Janowitz are so outstanding.
This said, the best 'Arabella' personally heard or seen is from 1960 with Lisa Della Casa, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Annelise Rothenberger, all three considered definitive in the roles and for good reason.
'Arabella' is not one of Strauss' best operas, not living long in the memory like 'Der Rosenkavalier' (my favourite) and 'Ariadne auf Naxos' do and the intensity of 'Salome' and 'Elektra' is much more compelling. It is still however very charming and gorgeous music that soars when needed in typical Strauss fashion. This 2014 performance has some great assets certainly, but it does disappoint considering the potential with so much talent.
Visually, it's all a mixed bag. The video directing is expansive yet intimate when needed, and the picture quality is superb. So is the sound, which is very resonant and there is a good balance between the orchestra and singers. The costumes are suitably elegant, with Fleming in particular looking wonderful. Less good are the sets, which are far too sparse in detail and were in serious need of more opulence. The critical entrances of Zdenka as a girl and Arabella with the water feel far too ordinary due to the lack of visual scope and clever use of objects.
Never found myself completely riveted by the stage direction or drama going on onstage. There are memorable parts, like Zdenka giving Matteo Arabella's key and with the Fortune Teller, some of the intimate parts are done affectingly too. Credit is due for not including staging that's distasteful, irrelevant, incoherent or anachronistic, at least one can follow the story here without ever being blown away. On the other hand, it all feels too safe and bland with a lot of charm and emotional impact absent. The updated setting adds very little, considering the very specific setting of the libretto, and not enough is done with it, more of a feel of updating for the sake of updating with little reason. The characters are not very interesting, Mandryka in fact is completely stock, and character interaction is static, including between Arabella and Zdenka.
Musically, there is a lot to enjoy. The orchestral playing throughout is positively luminous, with continuously beautiful tone, a wide range of musicianship and Strauss' gorgeous soaring lines soaring every bit as much to thrilling effect. They are helped by Christian Thielmann's conducting. Thielmann succeeds in giving the drama space and is very accommodating to the singers without being too indulgent, but he also succeeds in giving the music and pacing life.
With this 'Arabella' it is a case of the supporting roles faring better than the leads. The one exception is Daniela Fehle's highly annoying (even for that character) Fiakermilli. The colouratura should thrill, instead Fehle vocally squawks her way through it. Particularly good however are Hanna-Elisabeth Muller's incredibly passionately sung and at times quite poignant Zdenka and Daniel Behle as a surprisingly ardent Matteo (surprising considering Strauss almost always writing taxing music for thankless tenor roles, Matteo is not an exception). Gabriella Benackova also charms as Adelaide and Albert Dohmen, while not quite sonorous enough vocally and a touch underpowered, is a gruff but sympathetic father figure.
Renee Fleming, undoubtedly most people's main attraction to seeing the production, evoked a mixed reaction from me, mostly though not bad at all. She looks radiant as always and her experience in Strauss (from vast experience in 'Der Rosenkavalier' and 'Capriccio) certainly comes through. There is still some beautiful rich tone, wonderful musicality including striking pianissimo singing and great breath control. She is a very sincere, deeply felt and likable actress too. This said, her voice has lost its creaminess so she does sound fatigued in places and some of her mannerisms, that are more suited to jazz and blues (it just sounds ugly and out of place in Strauss), get in the way of the line.
More problematic is Thomas Hampson as Mandryka, making one feel like he should have done the role earlier in his career or not even attempted it. Hampson sounds well over-the-hill here with a lot of dryness and frequently sounding undersized, and like he was recovering from something that was affecting his voice. Dramatically he is incredibly (and unusually) stiff and does nothing with the role, with none of Mandryka's aristocratic bearing, boorishness or humanity coming through.
Overall, some great assets but a disappointment. 5.5-6/10 Bethany Cox