Changing Times: Arabella at the Opernhaus Zürich

Strauss – Arabella

Graf Waldner Michael Hauenstein
Judith Schmid
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Anett Fritsch
Josef Wagner
Pavol Breslik
Graf Elemer
Nathan Haller
Graf Dominik
Yannick Debus
Graf Lamoral
Brent Michael Smith
Die Fiakermilli
Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk
Eine Kartenaufschlägerin
Irène Friedli
Ein Zimmerkellner
Alejandro Del Angel
Cheyne Davidson
Mentor Bajrami
Nick Lulgjuraj

Chor der Oper Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Markus Poschner.
Stage director – Robert Carsen

Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland.  Sunday, May 8th, 2022.

It was a pleasure to be back at the beautiful Opernhaus Zürich.  My last visit there was actually my last staged opera in March 2020, just before the world changed.  It was interesting to reflect on how much has changed in the past two years, because Robert Carsen’s staging of Arabella, itself premiered at the start of the plague, also reflects on a world in flux.  He sets the action in 1938, at the time of the Austrian Anschluss. 

This makes for an interesting, if highly problematic, premise for a staging.  Interesting, because as Carsen rightly points out in a detailed interview in the program book, Richard Strauss had a particularly questionable association with the Nazi regime.  At the same time, the libretto for Arabella was finished in 1929 and the work itself premiered in 1933.  Carsen claims in this interview that von Hofmannstahl had seemingly predicted the horrors of that regime before his death, highlighting, in particular, how one of Arabella’s suitors, Graf Elemer, belittled Mandryka’s Wallachian background.  And yet I left the theatre this evening not at all convinced that Carsen’s concept actually works and even worse, wondered whether it actually showed a lack of respect for the memory of that horrific time in history.

This is a work that focuses on nascent love, of how class and the need to keep up appearances prevent true love from happening, and what happens when one finally meets one’s soulmate.  It’s ultimately a great piece of Sunday afternoon escapism, with some glorious soaring music in that inimitable Straussian manner.  Carsen sets the action in an impressively grand hotel (set by Gideon Davey).  The action is naturalistic, with characters who clearly relate to each other.  There was some business with the Fiakermilli and some men in lederhosen, where she removed their hats and they fell to the floor.  It seemed to amuse other audience members greatly, but I found it distinctly unfunny.  Yet for Carsen, it’s impossible to remove the work from the events that happened shortly after the premiere.  The ball scene is adorned with swastikas, while the stage is populated with officers in Nazi costumes.  He also stages a ballet of a group of officers and the men in lederhosen giving Nazi salutes.  From Carsen’s staging, I can see no dramaturgical justification for this and moreover, it feels gratuitous, serving no dramatic purpose but instead disrespecting the victims of the Shoah and other tragedies.  In the closing scene, as Arabella and Mandryka finally reach their happy end, Nazi soliders break in and surround Mandryka’s men.  This is an effect Carsen used in his Rosenkavlier, the aim surely to make us reflect on the fact that while these two believed they would be happy every after, they wouldn’t be for long.  Yet again, rather than illuminating the music and making us reflect, the effect feels cynical, going against the grain of the music and the text.  Of course, I love it when a stage director challenges my preconceptions and makes me think – one need only think of last week’s Tristan for an example of that.  But for that to happen, one needs to feel led through a narrative throughout the entire evening and convinced of the director’s vision.  I can’t say that I felt that on this occasion.

An experienced Zdenka, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was making her debut in the title role for this run, as a replacement for the originally-announced Anja Harteros.  It’s a big step up for this lyric soprano with a dreamy and statuesque stage presence.  The role requires the ability to soar ecstatically with an easy top and sustain some longingly lengthy legato phrases.  It did sound that Müller took some time to warm up, the intonation initially had a tendency to sink towards the end of those phrases.  It also sounds that the role is probably a size too big for Müller’s current vocal estate, even in a house as congenial as this, modest in size with a grateful acoustic.  Her tuning, in some of the more climactic vocal writing higher up, sat around the note as if pushing the voice harder than it can naturally go.  The top also sounded rather shallow, verging on shrill.  Still, Müller is an engaging actress and made much of the text.  It’s a decent first stab at the role, however.

As her sister, Annett Fritsch blended effectively with Müller in their duets but here, again, it sounded that the role was a stretch too far – the tone taking on a hard, harsh edge higher up.  Fritsch has given me a number of highly enjoyable evenings in the theatre in other repertoire in the past and I do wonder if this might have been an unannounced indisposition.  Judith Schmid sang Adelaide in a deliciously fruity mezzo, with a full and juicy bottom.  Michael Hauenstein’s bass was a little grainy in tone, but he filled the role of Graf Waldner with splendid verbal acuity and a very convincing attempt at a Viennese accent.  Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk threw herself into the Fiakermilli’s challenging coloratura, pinging out with ease on high and turning the corners with aplomb. 

As Mandryka, Josef Wagner sang in a firm, handsome baritone that seemingly defied gravity in the way that he sustained those long, languid phrases higher up.  Yes, there was a tendency for the tone to discolour at the very top, but the way that he managed to portray the full gamut of Mandryka’s emotions, without ever resorting to hectoring or compromising the integrity of the tone, was most impressive.  Pavol Breslík sang Matteo with ardent generosity, pouring out wonderfully open and effortless tone on high, singing with striking ease and beauty of tone.  The remaining cast reflected the exceptionally high standards of the house, with a particular mention for Brent Michael Smith’s extremely handsome bass as Graf Lamoral.

Markus Poschner led a reading that was fully alive to the multifaceted universe of Strauss’ writing.  He led his forces effortlessly from lyricism, to drama, to burgeoning waltzes with a swing that was irresistible.  Of course, he had the exceptional and finely responsive Philharmonia Zürich at his disposal.  They played with silky strings, piquant winds and wonderfully secure brass without a single missed or ragged entry throughout the entire evening.  The chorus sang with firm tone in their brief interjections.

This was an afternoon in the theatre that had much to offer, particularly in Wagner’s Mandryka, Breslík’s Matteo, and the strength of the supporting cast.  Müller gave us a respectable account of the title role, a decent first attempt, and I look forward to how she grows into the role in the future – the clarity of her diction and dreamy stage presence are already a good foundation on which to develop further into the role.  Carsen’s staging looks good but is highly problematic.  I agree with his need to question and consider Strauss’s association with the Nazi regime, but am not convinced that this is the way to do it.  The evening was received with some boos as the curtain descended, but with generous applause for the entire cast. 

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