Strauss’ three-act opera Arabella, which marked the composer’s last cooperation with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, premiered in Dresden in 1933. What the composer himself called a lyric comedy is marked by stereotypical characters, family conflicts and requisite misunderstandings, set in the Vienna of half a century earlier. Having squandered all his assets, the burly Count Waldner hopes to marry off his beautiful elder daughter Arabella into a monied family, thereby preserving his access, both to credit and to credibility, as a member of society. 

Julia Kleiter (Arabella), Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk (The Fiakermilli) and chorus
© Toni Suter

Arabella’s sister, Zdenka, stands in her older sister’s shadow and, dressed as a man, gets the short end of the stick; the family simply cannot afford dressing two daughters in style. Regardless, Zdenka shows herself compassionate and loving, and eventually helps turn the tide of conflict and misunderstanding. The girls’ mother, right hand to her husband’s foibles, takes solace in the promises of a fortuneteller and her own naiveté. Yet the story’s real driver is Arabella herself, whose values are solid and who gives her heart to a Slovenian, Mandryka, rather than comply with her father’s designs. Fortunately, her chosen one is generously endowed financially, even if, by his own admission, he is “half farmer.”

Robert Carsen shifts the action from Vienna of the 1880s to the time of the Nazi regime, when the work was premiered. Two large swastikas flank the stage, and a short ballet entr’acte (Philippe Giraudeau, choreography) features Nazi salutes and dignity-defying antics we associate with National Socialism. Gideon Davey’s stately set was a three-story hotel courtyard – each of its many room doors lit by a gas lamp – and a single flat downstage that served either as a backdrop or the hotel’s outdoor terrace. In that context, the on-stage set changes by waiters and busboys seemed perfectly logical. 

© Toni Suter

The cast was promising, despite illness having forced last minute changes. Given the coronavirus threat, the Swiss authorities recently stipulated a new policy for “large events”; the opera house, too, had to limit its audience to 900. The few empty seats at the premiere were disheartening, yet given the current risk climate, the performance was a brave move on the management’s part, underscoring a strong policy of “come hell or high water, full steam ahead”.

Michael Hauenstein sang a convincing and die-hard Count Waldner, whose incorrigible excesses spurred the story. As his wife Adelaide, Judith Schmid’s superb vocal performance was matched only by her command of an exasperating role: the superstitious, gullible mother. Stepping in for the indisposed Julia Kleiter on only a few days’ notice, Astrid Kessler nailed the title role, deservedly taking thunderous applause at the curtain. Well-merited, too, were the accolades awarded to Josef Wagner, who sang a strong Mandryka, the pivotal role that demands agility over more than two octaves. Yet while his spiteful jealously and suspicions were well portrayed, his character’s fiery passion could have been underscored more persuasively. Daniel Behle sang Matteo with requisite energy and silvery clang, while Valentina Farcaş, in her role debut role, delighted with her portrayal of Zdenka. Everyone should have such a sister! 

Daniel Behle (Matteo) and Valentina Farcaş (Zdenka)
© Toni Suter

Before Act 3, Matteo had made love in a darkened room with a woman he assumed was Arabella, giving Mandryka reason to accuse her of infidelity. When Zdenka, no longer disguised as a man, rushes into the hotel lobby in her skivvies, all realize it was she who’d been in Matteo’s arms, an event the young man liked enough to ask on the spot for her hand. Remorsefully, Mandryka begs forgiveness for his own mix-up and gains Arabella’s renewed devotion, so all’s well that ends well.   

Josef Wagner (Mandryka)
© Toni Suter

Strauss’ music is no easy earful, and both the large configuration of the Philharmonia Zürich orchestra under Fabio Luisi, and the superb house chorus (prepared by Ernst Raffelsberger) had to master legion demands to perform it. But in a panoply of grating sounds, frenetic switches, and continuous drama, the orchestra was often too loud, even overpowering the singers. The disconnect may have been intended to boost the sense of agitation. Back in 1898, one critic in Boston's Musical Record wrote that Strauss’ music “was indeed the music of the future… when man has lost all his healthy instincts, his faculty of divine emotion, his sense of beauty, his brains, his common sense…” While that assessment would likely be qualified today, Carsen's production did indeed deal with fragmented and colourful encounters, false accusations, attempts to shimmy up the social ladder, untenable behaviour and a handful of cameo roles. At the very least, this Arabella was one very strange beast.