Strauss - Arabella

ONP Bastille, Paris, Wednesday July 4 2012

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production and sets: Marco Arturo Marelli. Costumes: Dagmar Niefind . Lighting: Friedrich Eggert. Graf Waldner: Kurt Rydl. Adelaide: Doris Soffel. Arabella: Renée Fleming. Zdenka: Genia Kühmeier. Mandryka: Michael Volle. Matteo: Will Hartmann (replacing Joseph Kaiser). Graf Elemer: Eric Huchet. Graf Dominik: Edwin Crossley Mercer. Graf Lamoral. Thomas Dear. Die Fiakermilli: Iride Martinez. Eine Kartenaufschlägerin: Irène Friedli. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

It doesn’t show, because I don’t succeed, but in fact every time I start one of these write-ups I tell myself I’ll keep it short. The trouble is I always want to include enough detail to recall the production if need be (which was the whole point when I started keeping these records), so I end up rambling on.

This time, however, for those who want the facts about Paris’s new Arabella in a few words, I can sum it up in six: great cast, wrong house, crap production. So, if you’re in a hurry you can now leave.

Renée Fleming is, in my experience, at her best in Strauss. In Arabella, she’s magnificent, even better than in Capriccio. I still read, in France, about her “double crème” timbre, but these days her mature voice is way more interesting than that, with more grain and a fascinating smokiness. Her approach to Arabella has none of the mannerisms that drive people (including me) up the wall. It’s subtle, sophisticated yet natural-sounding, conversational and intimate. But subtlety and intimacy don’t get you far – literally speaking – at the Bastille, which has always been too big for her. I was on row eight and strained to hear her in the first act. I left reading reviews in the press till after the performance, but discovered they say the same. You found yourself certain you were witnessing an exceptional performance, but wishing you could hear it better and wondering whether you should buy a recording to find out what you were missing.

Similarly, Genia Kuhmeier sang beautifully, with a silvery sound really reminiscent of Gundula Janowitz and oodles of tender commitment, but without the necessary volume. As a result, the act one duet about Mr Right didn’t take off, and as it’s one of the highlights of the score, that was a disappointment. As Fiakermilli, too, Iride Martinez, in sparkly shocking pink, had bags of vivacious charm, a winning smile and all the notes you could hope for, but a small voice for a huge house.

Will Hartmann stepped in at the last minute and did a great job in the killer role of Matteo, a tenor part as difficult as Janacek. And above all, Michael Volle reminded us quite forcefully that Mandryka, a taxing role if ever there was one, vocally and dramatically, gets much of the best music in this opera. He was up to the Bastille’s dimensions and very nearly stole the show. Soffel and Rydl were the experienced troupers you’d expect.

No doubt nearly everyone was to some degree saving his or her voice for the last act, when at last we had some sublime Strauss moments and a great finale and lots of clapping, including vigorous applause for the orchestra, who I therefore suppose had done a good job under Jordan. I couldn’t judge as, in the patchy stalls acoustics at the Bastille, you can’t tell what they’re up to (though I did hear some dodgy horn playing): another disappointment when you know perfectly well that in Strauss they’re actually up to a great deal indeed, down in their hole.

What a waste, then, to schedule this musically outstanding Arabella in the wrong house – it should have been at Garnier – and in such a crappy production. From all I’ve managed to read about it, it seems it’s a new one. I find that very hard to believe. It looks as if Joël picked up an 80s Merry Widow or Hello Dolly at a car-boot sale deep in the provinces (“the 80s in Bergerac”, said my neighbour, who had earlier wondered aloud how much people sitting at the back of the second balcony were actually hearing) and thought it would “do” for Arabella, and while I was sitting through it I was convinced it must have been shipped in lock, stock and barrel from some cash-strapped theatre abroad. Since when do Paris opera costumes not fit?

There was a single set: giant, white, sinuously curving panelled walls with mouldings and cornice against a “sky” of royal blue drapery. At the sides, the white was flaking seriously; to the rear on the right, the panelling was painted with Magritte-like blue skies and clouds. The walls swivelled open to reveal atmospheric photos of imperial Vienna, and their reverse was in tarnished mirror, so of course all the regulars thought back to Paris’s late but not particularly lamented production of Rosenkavalier, which involved much the same trick years ago. The white gloss floor (this was a blue and white production: there was even a flimsy royal blue silk curtain, just like in ’85 – and just like in ’85, it got stuck) turned slowly to bring in or take out ugly props through the gaps between the revolving panels: club chairs, a table with an incredibly tacky crochet tablecloth, suitcases, the requisite staircase… The chilly colour scheme only changed for the ball, when glittering pink Fiakermilli, with a moustache and a whip and a coach pulled by coachmen got up as mice (I think they were supposed to be mice; one reviewer thought they had dogs’ ears on their bowlers) were lit in gaudy fairground (or disco) colours.

The costumes throughout were awful: awful, baggy, beige and brown uniforms for the bell-boys, awful maroon dresses for the countess, awful, ill-fitting forest green for Matteo, Billy Bunter checks for Zdenka, silly (and again oversized) brocade tails and floppy ties, crumpled trousers and top hats (indoors!) for the suitors… Arabella arrived in what looked like a Fellini bishop’s outfit, all icy pale blue and silver lamé, but spent most of the evening in a royal blue gown, pulling long royal blue gloves on or off. And indeed, when the director had an idea, it was, during the “misunderstanding” in the plot, to have couples of dancers, the girls all in that same blue dress (reminds me of Gershwin – Of Thee I Sing or Let ‘Em Eat Cake?), the men bare-chested in their dress trousers, waltz around to Mandryka’s dismay – and ours too, especially when some of them collided. The acting ws the corniest out. It reminded me of Trial by Jury at my grammar school in Burton-on-Trent.

What a difference a director makes, I thought, with Tcherniakov’s Trovatore on Sunday in mind. What a sad waste of a great cast, in the wrong place and the wrong show. It would be nice to have a recording, though…


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