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Subject: More on Arabella, Zurich, 12/14 May 2000
From: Gabriel Bocanegra <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Gabriel Bocanegra <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 1 Jun 2000 10:12:34 -0400
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Dear Listers,

As promised, here are some additional thoughts on the new production of
Richard Strauss' Arabella which premiered 7 May 2000 at the Opernhaus
Zuerich.

Conductor:          Franz Welser-Moest
Direction:   Goetz Friedrich
Sets/Costumes:   Gottfried Pilz, Isabel Ines Glathar
Lights:    Juergen Hoffmann
Chorus:    Juerg Haemmerli

Graf Waldner:   Alfred Muff
Adelaide:   Cornelia Kallisch
Arabella:   Cheryl Studer
Zdenka:           Dawn Kotoski
Mandryka:   Wolfgang Brendel
Matteo:    Piotr Beczala
Graf Elemer:   Peter Straka
Graf Dominik:   Cheyne Davidson
Graf Lamoral:   Guido Goetzen
Die Fiakermilli:         Erika Miklosa
Eine Kartenaufschlaegerin: Irene Friedli
Ein Zimmerkellner:  Markus Volpert
Welko:    Markus Gehrig
Djura:    Kaspar Hohler
Jankel:    Florian Hodel

First, my apologies if by chance I have repeated some of Thierry Morice's
observations but I had redacted this document prior to taking off for an
extended weekend elsewhere and am presently lacking the time to revise it.
Secondly, if the production contained innumerable hidden mysteries and piles
of psychological debris, you had to be there.  I could never do it full
justice.

This Arabella apparently takes place not in the Vienna of the 1860s but in
the decadent 1920s or 30s (Berlin?  Dresden, where it premiered in 1933?).
Whatever the case, upon my first encounter with the sets (12 May) I found
their quality wanting and disappointing: bland, sparse, low-rent, and
arguably unimaginative, as if thrown together in haste.  I have seen similar
work in subprovincial companies like the Boston Lyric Opera (although they
could never boast such an exalted caliber of singer-actor-artists in one
night, notwithstanding Richard Dyer's pitiful if-it's-local-it's-world-class
understanding of the universe).  By the second performance (14 May) the
scenery had grown a little on me but not sufficiently. That the opportunity
existed for lavish use of so-called Eurotrash props needs no saying.
Luckily, this old and tired approach was overlooked, although some residue
was allowed to creep in (e.g., orgiastic revelers [dressed], many of them
grotesque-looking in appearance, some predictable black-lipsticked lesbian
couples, and the like).  The set designers employed a mixture of Art
Deco/Bauhaus and therefore modernist and minimalist décor.  The end result
(and purpose?) appeared to be to strip the opera of its regal and noble
accretions and traditions.  However, it was some of those same accretions
that I missed most because they would have provided a sense of badly-needed
contrast.  Was the time period chosen to harmonize with the blind amorality
and shallowness of the Waldners?

On the other hand, how else do you stage this opera afresh considering its
straightforward and simple plot devoid of symbolism and character
development?  The understated and stark backdrops effectively forced the
characters to interrelate properly and, with one glaring exception in Act
II, the audience to concentrate on those relationships.  And so this was a
literal Arabella, conceived and designed not as a sentimental museum piece
or as a vehicle for nostalgia (no della Casa apers need apply) but as a
piece of living theater.   And for that, the effort has to be given credit.
This angle I enjoyed much.  There's something to be said for the avoidance
of undue sentimentality in music-making.  Words and declamation mattered a
lot here, and with an exemplary eloquent cast like this one, every word was
given its due…and not through Sprechgesang.  One could have taken dictation
all night.  At any rate, if Friedrich's final intent was to equally bring
out the comic, the absurd, and the dramatic in the libretto, he succeeded
(with kind cooperation from the well-rehearsed ensemble).  Isn't Arabella
also something of a caricature (perhaps) of domestic squabbling and
bickering?  And so in Friedrich's hands, this Arabella became an operetta
disguised as opera.  Not a misguided assumption, I think.

Act I
The Waldner's hotel quarters.  Much gray all around spiced with some vivid
reds and blues (carpets, costumes, etc.).  I feel that some of the costumes
failed to evoke the era (save for Matteo, dressed in his military uniform,
the Card reader, and the Fiakermilli).  Practically everyone else seemed
dressed in more or less timeless fashion and, for my taste, an Arabella and
Adelaide that looked too business-like in this act.  The short character
role of the card reader was very well and freshly sung and acted to the hilt
by Irene Friedli.  Adelaide was also well sung, if indistinctly, and well
acted by Cornelia Kallisch.  Hers is not a memorable voice but she seems to
be a perfect ensemble singer/actress.  Zdenka was sung by Dawn Kotoski, a
competent ensemble singer (an ok actress) with a small voice lacking
individuality.  Her vibrato seemed quite pronounced making her sound
somewhat monochromatic (albeit properly petulant) and not as lyrical as one
would wish.  Kallisch sang pretty much the same both nights.  Kotoski sang
much better Friday.  On Sunday afternoon Kotoski's voice was lying too low
and was hoarse-sounding, and she screamed her lines.  Count Walder was sung
by Alfred Muff and there's nothing to fault in his vocal delivery and as an
actor.  His voice is remarkably centered, rounded, and resonant.  His Count
was convincingly played as a minor Baron Ochs.  And why not?  Is his ruinous
financial state due to gambling combined with the family's potential for
redemption through the sale of his own daughter not an opportunity for
comedy and absurdity?

It baffles me that anything unkind could be written about Wolfgang Brendel's
Mandryka.  Everything you could possibly ask for in the role he has in
spades, except perhaps luxuriant beauty of tone.  There cannot be a better
Mandryka at the moment.  Great acting.  As I said earlier, his singing was
much better Friday night than Sunday (again, his voice sounded very low in
the oppresively tropical temperatures of that early Sunday afternoon).  None
of the disastrously off-pitch singing he is so often accused of was in
evidence.  The role of Matteo was also well acted and well sung by tenor
Piotr Beczala.  As for Arabella, I have already written about Cheryl
Studer's way with the role.  But let me reemphasize her adeptness in
bringing out the comic, the absurd, and the dramatic through her voice
acting and showmanship.  Her Arabella knew what she wanted right from the
start and got it all...and in her own terms.  But so do each of the
Waldners.  Some may be horrified by such an "unregal" approach to the role.
But the production would have tolerated little else.  But then again, read
the libretto to figure out what Arabella is really all about: impulsiveness,
capriciousness, determination...something of a tease.  That the role fits
Studer's ambitious and headstrong yet playful personality like a glove is a
given.  She also sang and declaimed the role to the hilt (from pure girlish
sounds to gorgeous and well-sculpted long lyrical lines to rolling ball of
fire dramatic sounds) and the audience loved her for it.  Friedrich had her
waltzing and she did so gracefully and with aplomb.  At the end of the act
(at the closing of Mein Elemer) I became nervous because he had her rolling
and unrolling herself in curtains and I wasn't sure she would emerge from
them time and again.  But she did.

Act II
The ball.  The staging consists of a large, wide, and dark staircase
sprinkled with balloons in shades of blue (I could have done that).
Scattered tables with chairs on both sides of the stairs at the bottom.
Again, sparseness was the order of the day.  Studer appears standing midway
down the staircase flanked by her mother and assorted revelers.  She is
dressed in a dark blue velvet gown, her jet-black hair down (which I like
because it exalts her natural beuty), adorned with small hairpieces that
looked like flowers or sparkling stars (but in good, moderate taste).  This
is when everyone realizes what a stunningly gorgeous lady she can be.  She
had me and everyone else gasping when, as she was descending the stairs, she
tripped and almost fell down.  It turned out this was done on purpose for
she did the same on Sunday.  It was done to accentuate the character's
vulnerability at the beginning of the Ball (although unlikely, I can't help
but wonder, did she and Friedrich decide to toy with the popular notion of
the diva's long-anticipated ultimate and final collapse any minute now?).
Her dismissal (as if fending off flies) of her other suitors Elemer,
Dominik, and Lamoral, who were standing right behind her further up the
stairs, before reaching her father and Mandryka at the foot of the stairs,
was effectively comical.

What more can I say that I haven't before?  What I have written about
everyone regarding Act I pretty much applies to Acts II and III.  The
Fiakermilli was very well acted and very well sung by Erika Miklosa who is
quite a stunning looking woman.  Her little "high-wire" act was managed very
well.  She was attired to resemble a cabaret act, complete with top hat,
trousers, etc.  About the glaring exception I mentioned earlier, I thought
that the inclusion in the scenery during (or was it just before?) the
Mandryka/Arabella duet (behind them, divided by a screen) of what looked
like a man in drag striking silly poses was a cheap and useless prop that
distracted from the sublimity and beauty of the music and the moment.

Act III
Back at the hotel, this time in the lobby.  If in the middle act Studer's
singing turned a bit effortful (far more so Sunday afternoon than Friday
night) she came back into her element in this act.  Her final aria was sung
and emoted as effectively as anything in Act I, perfectly poised and
touching in its simplicity and eloquence and, yes, sadness because of her
presumed loss of autonomy.

I found Welser-Moest's conducting marvellous, never lingering for effect and
perfectly paced.  He knew every twist and turn in this score.  And his way
of underscoring motifs as a unifying force spoke in no uncertain terms about
his musical intelligence.  No trace of sentimentality all night, not in the
singing, not in the playing, not in the conducting (but without none of the
agenda-driven didacticism or academic dryness so in vogue today).  There was
also a perceptible lack of lightness of touch and finesse (the orchestra's
fault).  But I feel that a more luxuriant approach to the score would have
negated the producer's intentions.

All in all, despite some reservations, fresh, living, stimulating theatre.

Gabriel Bocanegra
Boston
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