Michael Volle as Mandryka and Malin Byström as the title character in Strauss’s “Arabella.”
(Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, the Metropolitan Opera has revived the works of Richard Strauss. Despite being one of the undisputed kings of the operatic repertoire, his works have not been a permanent fixture every single season. This year, the Met brought back his ever popular "Der Rosenkavalier" as well as the rarely performed "Die Frau Ohne Schatten." For its final dose of Strauss, the house revived "Arabella" for the first time since 2001 when Renee Fleming took on the title role. The revival featured the Otto Schenk production was a truly satisfying rendition of the final collaboration between Strauss and his long-time librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal.
The Otto Schenk production is traditional in every possible way with its lavish design and costuming. However, as is characteristic of the great director's productions, this staging of the opera is filled with detail. The frame of each act's set is in almost 16:9 cinematic proportions, emphasizing the scope and intimacy of Strauss' work. The first act is set in the hotel room where Arabella and her family are living during their financial struggles. Upstage and on stage left are two doors through which the characters enter and exit. In between the two doors is a window while the other side of the stage features a table and other ornaments. Despite, the detail of the room, there is a sense of emptiness that hovers about, emphasizing the family's financial situation. The second act is set in a grand ballroom. Columns dominate throughout, particularly all the way downstage where two columns are perched on the extremes of the stage. In the background there is a staircase leading down to the dance floor while on stage right is a staircase leading out of the hall. In the middle there is a circular ornament that is utilized wonderfully in the meeting between Arabella and Mandryka. As the two lovers meet for the first time, they stand behind said ornament, expressing their timid natures toward one another. However, as they get more comfortable, they walk around to the front of the decoration and meet in the middle.
The final act is staged in the hotel lobby with a massive staircase dominating the center of the stage; it is this staircase that will eventually guide all of the characters toward heightened and exalted states by the end. Mandryka himself states that he wishes to meet someone "that I can exalt above me (emphasis mine)" and this staircase ultimately serves as a symbol that consummates this wish for the character. In the final image of the staging, the two lovers climb the staircase and reach out for one another. While it is clear that they love one another and will marry, this final imagery suggests that they may still have a few barriers to overcome in order to truly make their marriage work. The staging in the second is particularly memorable for its buzzing ambience while the first is filled with sterility and restriction movement; Arabella's decision to twirl around at the end actually provides the scene with its only real sense of energy and freedom. The final act, which is made up mainly of a prolonged confrontation is also staged with more firmness from the characters, thus emphasizing their opposing positions.
The costuming is also lush and expressive. Arabella enters the first act where a red dress, coat and hat. This contrasts greatly with the white dress that she wears in the following scenes. While she seems to be a rather ambivalent figure for most of the first act (she seemingly takes no considerations for her suitors' affections and comes off as rather selfish), the white dress expresses her purity and gentility. The snobby nature exhibited in the opening act (up until the final passage "Mein Elemer") is almost completely gone throughout the second act. Zdenka's final nightgown is also white, suggesting her purity and also showcasing her as Arabella's equal; their mother walks about with a black dress throughout the second and third act, expressing her devious and adulterous ways.
The cast was led by Swedish soprano Malin Bystrom, who gave a nuanced performance of the titular character. Her Arabella was filled with elegance in her physical portrayal but also in her vocal presentation. During the scene with her sister Zdenka, her singing went from a more stern tone as she rejected the notion of loving Matteo to a sweeter quality as she spoke of the man of her dreams ("aber der Richtige"). Her voice crescendoed gloriously at the "und ihn" and the ensuing phrases were filled with tremendous longing; another wondrous crescendo on the word "selig" a few phrases later furthered this notion that this character was filled with desperate romantic longing. Her final monologue "Mein Elemer" furthered this emotion as Bystrom's eyes remained fixed throughout much of it; she seemed to be searching not only for the desire one, but even within herself. The voice retained a rather withdrawn and introspective quality until it burst out with exuberance in the final utterances; she even started to dance about the room.
At the start of the second, she stood perched on the staircase looking across the room at Mandryka. The longing was expressed in her stair and throughout the initial meeting with her husband-to-be she looked away and her voice retained its restrained quality. However as the tension built between the two lovers, her gaze became more fixed on him. Her singing had a mixture of tenderness and excitement and as she walked away from him to "say goodbye to her girlhood" there was a vibrant smile on her face; in many ways this Arabella remained a young girl despite being ready to take the next step. Even while she rejected her three lovers, she had a radiant grin on her face; nothing could spoil the moment for her Arabella. In the third act, Bystrom's interpretation of the character expressed the loss of innocence. The excited looks turned toward a more saddened gaze; she looked down at a ground for long periods and turned away from others throughout. The character looked to avoid falling apart in front of the group and was engaged in an inner battle to retain control. But at the work's climax, in which she forgives Mandryka, the tenderness in her voice returned; the high notes were delicate but also exhilarating in their execution. As she walked down the stairs to give him the water, she moved at a languid pace, signifying her conflicted feelings about forgiving him; she wanted to but at the same time there was a fear and hesitance that added tension to the climactic moment.
Michael Volle created a complex Mandryka in his first run of performances at the famed opera. His arrival in the first act showcased a stoic almost heroic man that matched Arabella's magical descriptions of her "stranger." His voice was elegant and polished throughout and his firm stature (that towered over everyone) made him out to be a knight in shining armor. But Volle's portrayal in the subsequent acts stripped down the seeming hero and showcased his complexity. At the start of Act 2, Volle's Mandryka seemed afraid of Arabella and walked about in seeming attempts to avoid meeting her. During their initial introduction, he remained in his bowing position for an uncomfortable amount of time, not only showing his social awkwardness (he calls himself a country bumpkin and consistently calls Arabella a Countess) but his insecurity and lack of initiative; he was waiting for her to get out of her bowed position. Throughout their first conversation, his voice retained a quieter nature, similar to Bystrom's, that slowly grew with passionate intensity as the two lovers grew comfortable with one another. As he relished his happiness, he paraded about the stage like the seeming king of the world, but the movement was not completely heroic; there was an uncontrolled boyishness to his appearance that made him all the more endearing. The end of the scene is a major set piece for the Mandryka in which he unleashes his fury and jealousy. Volle was an indomitable beast throughout. He had no qualms about throwing flowers around and pushing people about. His voice was pushed to its limit and filled with a range of angry declamations; every consonant was delivered with a pointed bite that articulated the character's vengeful nature. He carried this same level of intense fury into the third act, but next to Arabella's dignified calm, Volle's Mandryka looked pathetic. It made the subsequent desire for forgiveness all the more believable and touching. In his final moments with her, he was no longer a mysterious stranger, but a flawed man seeking atonement.
Juliane Banse portrayed a vulnerable Zdenka; her visage expressed a constant longing and there was barely ever a smile. In the final scene, in which she reveals herself to her beloved Matteo, the pain and suffering turned into a vibrant smile. The work's ending tidies everything up so quickly that it does not give Zdenka much of a chance to apologize to her beloved and gives Matteo even less time to comprehend his situation and come to terms with it. However, the spirited smile on Zdenka's face expressed all the love and made the transition work dramatically. Her voice had a delicate quality that expressed Zdenka's emotional state beautifully.
Tenor Roberto Sacca sang with passionate abandon as Matteo, but his tenor seemed a bit rough and harsh in its peak registers. Brian Jadge had a more finessed tenor as Count Elemer, especially in his mid-voice; the other two suitors, portrayed by Alexey Lavrov and Keith Miller expressed their longing for Arabella so long that her rejected created empathy for them. Audrey Luna threw off the coloratura of the Fiakermilli with coquettish bravura while Victoria Livengood's fortune teller was characterized by a wide vibrato. Martin Winkler and Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave subtly aggressive portrayals of the Count and Countess Waldner; they shared some rather antagonist moments with one another in the first and third act despite claiming to be working together. This helped expressed the problematic nature of their marriage and helped enforce that their two daughters could be headed down similar paths with their respective husbands. Conductor Philippe Augin's reading of the score favored the strings tremendously as he emphasized their parts of the rest of the orchestra throughout the evening.
Volle and Bystrom have proven themselves as tremendous artists that will hopefully be back in future major works. More importantly, their complex portrayals of the work's protagonists have presented a strong argument for bringing back "Arabella" in future seasons with greater consistency.