The Met’s 2014 revival of Arabella comes a decade after its last. This latest edition reminds us of the beauties of Strauss’s opera, once dismissed as a pale derivative of Der Rosenkavalier. Malin Byström’s substantial voice prevailed (I attended the April 7 performance) over the sometimes unfriendly orchestration and in spite of conductor Philippe Auguin’s heavy baton. In Act I, the soprano’s volume came at the expense of the float she happily found for the lyric passages of Acts II and III. Michael Volle’s attractive voice betrayed his years of service, yet not so much as to compromise his compelling enactment of Mandryka. At every turn, in posture and phrase, Volle conveyed the character’s idealism, his confusion, his sense of being out of place, his belief in the power of love.
Opera is full of love at first sight. No coup de foudre is more persuasive than the encounter of Arabella and Mandryka, The meeting of these soulmates emerges in contrast to the comedy of manners and the farcical critique of materialism inscribed in Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s scenario. Prior to Act II, Mandryka becomes obsessed by a photograph of Arabella; she is intrigued by the stranger just outside her hotel who looks at her with “large, serious, steady eyes.” The first words of Act II are Mandryka’s as Arabella descends the stairs to the ballroom: “This is an angel, come down from Heaven.” Arabella, who has been courted by the most eligible bachelors of 1860s Vienna, understands at once that this is “the right man,” “der Richtige.” He brings far more than wealth—he brings his aura. Only minutes later, in one of the score’s most moving passages, the widower Mandryka evokes his dead wife, an angel for whom, he says, he was too young and not good enough. At the opera’s end, he rejoices in having found his new angel.
A recording of the ecstatic Act II duet of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Josef Metternich won many converts to Arabella. The soprano never sang the opera in the theatre, reportedly because she found the role uninteresting. You would never know it from this excerpt.
In the mid-1950s, Arabella was in the air. Aside from the Schwarzkopf album of highlights, there were two compilations that featured Lisa Della Casa. More than twenty years after its Dresden world premiere, the Met presented the U.S. premiere in February 1955. I saw it there a few weeks later. I expect I will never hear the Act II duet performed with more heart than I did that night. If you wish to judge for yourself, the matinee broadcast of the 1955 Arabella is available on Amazon. The betrothed couple is played by Eleanor Steber and George London, artists matched in their fervor and, so rare, in the weight of tone suited to the text. They are both at their peak, Steber having acquired great warmth in the middle register to go along with a phenomenal top by turns silvery and expansive. The massive voice of London, more bass than the lyric baritone to which we have become accustomed, reaches the top notes with adequate ease. As they fill out the most taxing, long-breathed phrases, Steber and London conjure the illusion of holding nothing back, all the while holding much more in reserve. Hilde Güden’s unrivaled Zdenka caps the Act I duet of the sisters with the high C of yet another angel. The opera is given in English translation, as it would be in three subsequent revivals. Conductor Rudolf Kempe abets intelligibility, applying his supple, light manner to Strauss’s sometimes raucous orchestral barrage.
Two years after its 1955 Met premiere, when Arabella returned to the Met, George London was joined by Lisa Della Casa. Della Casa was already widely known for her interpretation of the title role. With a voice somewhat less dense than that of Steber, she infused the score with her distinctively cool/warm timbre and personality and made for a particularly alluring “Queen of the Coachman’s Ball.” Here she is with Annaliese Rothenberger, a Met Zdenka on twelve occasions, in a 1963 performance from Munich.
More on the performance history of Arabella in my next post.