Fleming Ravishing As
Renée Fleming (Arabella), Iride Martinez (Die Fiakermilli) and Eric Huchet (Graf Elemer). Photo: Opéra national de Paris/Ian Patrick
I blush to admit that every (mercifully rare) time I find myself on a grand staircase during a visit to a stately home, I cannot resist descending the steps while singing the closing music from Richard Strauss’s Arabella (for all would-be staircase singers, I heartily recommend Holkham Hall in Norfolk, England). Now that I’ve gotten that little confession off my chest (or should it be my diaphragm?), you will understand why I was eager to make a special trip from England to Paris to see this new production at the Opéra de la Bastille, with a magnificent cast headed by the great Straussian soprano Renée Fleming in the title role.
Arabella was the final collaboration between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Having completed the libretto after a particularly fraught creative process, von Hofmannsthal was rocked by the suicide of his son Franz on the night of July 12-13, 1929. Two days later, just as he was preparing to attend Franz’s funeral, von Hofmannsthal collapsed and died from a stroke, aged only 55.
Much of the impetus for writing Arabella had come from a desire to re-create the ambiance and success of one of their earliest collaborations, Der Rosenkavalier, and there are indeed many similarities. Both are set in Vienna, have a trouser role and, if handled incorrectly, can teeter perilously on the edge of sugariness. Both works also have a central male character, an outsider who seems at odds with sophisticated city life; but whereas Baron von Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier is a country bumpkin whose attempts to marry the young female lead are largely farcical, Mandryka in Arabella is a foreigner from Croatia whose honesty contrasts with the corruption of Viennese high society and whose difference appeals to Arabella, the beautiful eldest daughter of the impoverished, gambling-addicted Count Waldner (sung here by Kurt Rydl) and his wife Adelaide (played with gorgeous campery by the legendary mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel). Mandryka’s brusqueness can make him an unsympathetic character, but the finesse of Michael Volle’s singing, especially in the beautiful duet with Arabella in Act II, makes him as endearing as it is possible to be. Julia Kleiter (alternating with Gunia Kühmeier) as Arabella’s younger sister Zdenka, who is obliged by her parents for financial reasons to live as a boy, manages to be convincingly boyish and, when it really matters, all-woman in her final scene with the object of her affection, Matteo (Joseph Kaiser).
After an understated beginning, Renée Fleming looks and sounds ravishing as Arabella, most movingly in her duets with Zdenka and Mandryka, at all times accompanied with great delicacy by conductor Philippe Jordan and the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris.
The production by Marco Arturo Marelli, who also designed the set, is pleasingly unfussy, with clever use of revolving discs on the stage—the large pieces of luggage circulating on the set in the first act tellingly attest to the precarious financial situation of the family as they are about to be evicted by bailiffs. Marelli is at his most inventive in the ball scene, when Mandryka’s increasing jealousy is represented by several female dancers, all dressed in the same blue gown as Arabella, cavorting with young men in various states of undress.
By the end of this production, such was the affecting performance by Fleming that I was only mildly disappointed when the glorious marble staircase I had imagined in the final scene turned out to be just a few paltry steps. Next time I visit a stately home, I think I better spare the public my strained tones and invite Renée Fleming along instead.
Opéra National de Paris: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Through July 10. Tickets: €5-€180. www.operadeparis.fr
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