Germany R. Strauss, Arabella: Soloists, Opera-ballet and actors of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (chorus director: Jeremy Bines), Tobias Kratzer (director), Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Dirk Kaftan (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 1.4.2023. (MB)
Arabella hovers on the edge of the repertoire in non-German-speaking countries, a little more popular in Germany and Austria than elsewhere. It has appeared once in London during my opera-going career, early on, in a production by Peter Mussbach, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, and starring Karita Mattila. Sitting in the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera, it was difficult to know what to make of it, given that much (most?) of the action was on the higher level of a split-level set, too high to be seen: by any standards, a failing of basic stage direction. I have also seen it twice in Munich, experiences I was happy to have had, yet neither of which won me over. Perhaps we are too ready to assign the label ‘problematic’ to dramatic works, yet the premature death of Hugo von Hofmmansthal certainly presented its problems to this, and to Richard Strauss. Although revisions had been made to the first act of Hofmannsthal’s libretto in light of Strauss’s criticism, as was their custom, Strauss set the remainder as it stood: a creditable mark of respect, though not perhaps the best decision on artistic grounds. I came, then, to the Deutsche Oper’s new production, first in a Tobias Kratzer Strauss trilogy (subsequent seasons will see Intermezzo and Die Frau ohne Schatten), not necessarily expecting to be convinced, yet actually finding myself rather more so than I had expected.
Kratzer’s production was not without its flaws, yet offered definite virtues too; I shall come shortly to both. It undoubtedly benefited from strong, committed performance, as did we, not least from late substitutes (explicitly identified as such on the cast list) conductor Dirk Kaftan and, in the title role, soprano Gabriela Scherer. How much of the musical interpretation was Kaftan’s and how much that of his predecessor Donald Runnicles, I do not know. In such circumstances, it often tends to be a bit of both. It surely owed a good deal of its success to Kaftan, though, in what, dim memories of Dohnányi notwithstanding, I found the most successful performance I had heard. I greatly enjoyed the greater warmth, especially from the strings; what can often come across as an icy score, too eager to place itself, more with Hofmannsthal than Strauss, close to operetta, here sounded positively Wagnerian – enabling us far better to sympathise with characters who, if we are honest, are not all the most sympathetic. That is, we did not necessarily align ourselves with them or I did not, but I gained greater insight into them as characters, in a particular situation. Arabella herself, as well as the opera that takes her name, could take her place more readily in a line of Strauss, and even Wagner, heroines. And the action, its ebb and flow as well as its pacing and, crucially, its meaning, took flight before our ears as well as our eyes.
Scherer proved ready both to dig deeper verbally than many a star soprano (though certainly not Mattila!) in what has often been seen as a ‘vehicle’, and also, especially in the first act, to offer a more rounded portrayal that did not present Arabella as an empty or implausible angel (whatever Mandryka might claim). Elena Tsallagova’s animated Zdenka/Zdenko was a joy from beginning to end. She did not put a foot, or note, wrong, engaging us in her plight and its vocal beauties in equal measure. If I say that Albert Pesendorfer and Doris Soffel as their parents proved excellent character singers, that is not to praise their acting ahead of their vocal artistry, but rather to say that it was impossible to dissociate one from the other. Russell Braun’s Mandryka and Robert Watson’s Matteo offered similarly rounded performances, engaging equally with the not always allied demands of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. Arabella’s trio of Viennese suitors met with detailed characterisation and differentiation from Thomas Blondelle, Kyle Miller, and Tyler Zimmerman. And if liking the Fiakermilli remains sadly beyond me, Hye-Young Moon’s performance was razor-sharp.
Kratzer’s production begins and, for the first act proceeds, relatively traditionally — at least in terms of being set where it ‘should’ be, though surely winning against tradition as Schlamperei in sheer keenness of observation. Much of both libretto and score seem emphatically to request this, and it is actually rather a nice surprise to see the faded grandeur of an 1860s Vienna hotel; not only that, it serves splendidly as backdrop for the financially driven nastiness playing out in front of it. All is heightened by live video work, picking up detail and enhancing the sense of much action – too much? – that might yet spiral out of control. The second act drags us out of what might seem to some nostalgia, though it is surely always more than that. For some the ball can seem a little long, though surely no one would feel it played out over a century-and-a-half. That, however, is what happens here, one shift taking us forward to the time of composition, Nazis rushing on stage to beat up a cabaret (indeed Cabaret) monkey, further ‘progress’ leading us to more sexually and otherwise liberated times: to the disco era, and finally what seems to be contemporary, frankly pansexual clubbing, leaving us in the here and now for the third act, albeit with filmed footage of where we began. The idea, I think, is to explore different attitudes towards sex and, perhaps still more so, gender.
If that sounds earnest, even contrived, perhaps it is, I think it might have been done less clunkily. However, the denouement, which may sound banal, nonetheless seems to me not only to work but to affect more readily than it might sound. Born, it seems, not only of the inclusiveness (ideally speaking, anyway) of a partying atmosphere – Adelaide, leading Dominic by a leash, ballet couplings to suit many a taste, and so on – an accepting world, perhaps opposed to or at least expanding upon the more traditional heteronormativity of Arabella and Mandryka, seems to be born before our eyes and even our ears. It may seem a stretch to portray Zdenka as trans; it may also seem a little unsubtle to have her (and, nicely, a converted Matteo) display the transgender flag at the close. Yet in this context, and also given the actual lived experience, as we now should say, of the character, it is arguably less so than narrow, operatic experience might initially suggest. In some ways, after all, operatic treatment of gender, including yet far from restricted to trouser roles, stands light years ahead of broader society. Why not celebrate that? And recognition and transformation are longstanding themes in opera, as well as of particular importance to both Hofmannsthal and Strauss. If Arabella does not seem the likeliest Strauss opera to bear a ‘message’, there is no harm in it doing so now and again, especially at a time when such a message stands so sorely needed. If Adelaide can adapt, and enjoy herself in doing so, why cannot we all?
Director – Tobias Krätzer
Designs – Rainer Sellmaier
Costumes – Clara Luise Hartel
Choreography – Jeroen Verbruggen
Video – Manuel Braun, Jonas Dahl
Evening director – Philine Tiezel
Lighting – Stefan Woinke
Dramaturgy – Bettina Bartz, Jörg Königsdorf
Live camera – Silke Broel, Lea Hopp, Janic Bebi
Count Waldner – Albert Pesendorfer
Adelaide – Doris Soffel
Arabella – Gabriela Scherer
Zdenka – Elena Tsallagova
Mandryka – Russell Braun
Matteo – Robert Watson
Count Elemer – Thomas Blondelle
Count Dominik – Kyle Miller
Count Lamoral – Tyler Zimmerman
Fiakermilli – Hye-Young Moon
Fortune Teller – Alexandra Hutton
Welko – Jörg Schörner
Djura – Michael Jamak
Jankel – Robert Hebenstreit
Room Waiter – Hainer Bossmayer