Arabella was Richard Strauss’ last collaboration with his favourite librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and is entitled a “lyric comedy”. Whilst there are certainly melodious moments, there are very few laughs in the text or plot. The impoverished Waldner family are long on lineage but perilously short of cash. To remedy the situation, the gambling-addicted pater familias Count Waldner essentially peddles his beautiful daughter Arabella to the highest bidder. His wife, Adelaide, is far from the cleverest countess on the Kärtnerstrasse. She is credulous of clairvoyants and subject to bouts of hysteria. A fondness for free Moët et Chandon, which would normally blow the daily budget, also suggests a character more arriviste than old money.

Anna Gabler (Arabella)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Problematic parents were something Strauss had experienced first hand. Despite being a highly accomplished horn player, father Franz was an irascible curmudgeon who disparaged almost everything his son wrote and his mother was mentally unstable and spent a considerable time in psychiatric institutions. Adding to the melancholy mix, shortly after having completed the libretto for Arabella, von Hofmannsthal dropped dead of a heart attack at 55, two days after the funeral of his suicide son. Although the peerless librettist had completed the first draft, he died before making the usual collaborative revisions.  Strauss refused to change any of the original text, which left problems in the dramaturgy and character development. Arguably, this contributed to the opera’s relatively modest success, especially when compared to Der Rosenkavalier from 22 years before.

Chen Reiss (Zdenka) and Benjamin Bruns (Matteo)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Bringing the action forward by about 60 years, Sven-Eric Bechtolf gave Marianne Glittenberg the opportunity to create some louche 1930s costumes but fell into the usual minefield of contextual incongruities. Mandryka makes frequent references to counts and countesses but the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy was abolished in 1919. Similarly, Mandryka assures Arabella that she will be mistress of all his forests and fields with only the “Kaiser und Kaiserin” above her. Duelling with sabres or pistols was hardly the preferred mode of dispute resolution in the 1930s. The hotel scenes worked well enough, but the Coachmen’s Ball in Act 2 looked more like Christopher Isherwood’s Kit Kat Klub in Berlin than an etiquette obsessed 1st District soirée dansante. No matter how low the Waldner’s had fallen, it is highly unlikely they would have been seen in a seedy Kneipe with topless male waiters and androgynous cross-dressers.

Musically things were variable. Arabella’s three suitors were never more than adequate and whilst looking like a flirtatious flapper, Zoryana Kushpler’s Adelaide was vocally underpowered. Maria Nazarova managed the stratospheric tessitura of the Fiakermilli competently enough but with a metallic timbre and not much finesse. Benjamin Bruns sang a vocally impeccable Matteo but was innocuous in characterization. His instant change of hopeless infatuation from Arabella to Zdenka made less sense in practice than it does in the libretto.

Kurt Rydl (Count Waldner)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Making his house role debut as Graf Waldner at the age of 70, “mega bass” veteran Kurt Rydl scored a singular triumph. The voice still has plenty of projection and the only convincingly comic moments were when Waldner shamelessly helps himself to the contents of Mandryka’s wallet. Chen Reiss was a charming Zdenka with pristine vocal colour. A fine piano top C in the “Der Richtiger” duet was impressive.

Christopher Maltman sang Mandryka with his customary elegant phrasing, strong upper-range and honeyed mezza-voce. “Ich habe eine Frau gehabt” was especially moving. Maltman also managed the rapid patter of Mandryka’s presto passages with commendably clear diction. Bechtolf seemed to forget that Mandryka was a self-confessed “semi-peasant” from the forests of Slavonia – his first entry could have been a Brioni fashion model strolling into the Hotel Imperial.

Anna Gabler (Arabella) and Christopher Maltman (Mandryka)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Unquestionably the title role drives this opera and considering previous Arabellas at the Wiener Staatsoper included Lisa della Casa, Kiri te Kanawa and Adrianne Pieczonka, Anna Gabler failed to meet that standard. A fast, bleaty vibrato and lack of nuanced word colouring made the overall characterisation unendearing and bland. Zdenka describes Arabella as “proud, coquette and cold” but there is a difference between hauteur and dramatically detached. There was also no evident epiphany from self-centered heart-breaker to deeply devoted fiancée. 

The Staatsoper orchestra responded energetically to the admirable conducting of Patrick Lange and Strauss’ rich instrumental tapestry was delicately revealed, especially in the woodwinds. The solo violin during Arabella’s “Mein Elmer” monologue was poignant and enhanced the ruminative text. The legendary Vienna strings were as sumptuous as ever, particularly in the entr’acte between Acts 2 and 3 and the supremely lyrical introduction to “Das war sehr gut, Mandryka”. Lange was noticeably attentive to the singers and his overall translucent reading followed Strauss’ admonition that his perennially overblown orchestration should be conducted “like Mendelssohn – elfin music”.

There was much to enjoy in this performance but Gabler’s Arabella was a long way from “Die Richtige”.