Arabella, the last opera collaboration of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, clearly focuses on the heroine named in the title in more ways than one. She is the center of attention and dominates other characters’ thoughts and actions even when she is not present on stage. Sometimes it almost seems as though Arabella acts the part expected of her in public, and only reveals her private thoughts when she is alone in her monologues and intimate dialogues. While her sister raised as a boy, Zdenka, wears her heart on her sleeve and always pours her feelings out, Arabella is a more complex character who may not even be aware of her deepest desires.

Anne Schwanewilms (Arabella) and Will Hartmann (Matteo) © A. Bofill | Gran Teatre del Liceu
Anne Schwanewilms (Arabella) and Will Hartmann (Matteo)
© A. Bofill | Gran Teatre del Liceu

So in order to have a successful performance of an intimate drama of Arabella, it is crucial to have a soprano of not only the right voice but of the right temperament in the title role.  Anne Schwanewilms succeeded in making the heroine a three-dimensional and interesting character. Hers is not a particularly large voice, and her high notes can be thin though never shrill. But she vocally and physically embodied the character, as a rather cool but confused ingenue in Act I, a somewhat reluctant but happy lover in Act II, and a realistic and perhaps cynical woman of the world in Act III. Her middle voice was especially rich and sweet; every word and phrase was clearly articulated with subtle nuance and meaning; she was elegant and poised, and acted well with her body and face. Her Act I solo, “Aber der Richtige”, as well as her long monologue at the end of the act as her voice warmed up, were both quietly breathtaking in their longing and heartache.

In Christof Loy’s production that has been shown previously in Göteborg, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, the action is updated to the present from 1860s. The stage was simply and starkly set with white panels that slides across to reveal hotel rooms, a banquet hall and a hotel lobby. When the characters sang their innermost feelings or have meaningful interactions, the singers moved to the stage front, and the panels would close to eliminate visual distractions.  At the end of the opera, the main nine characters were left standing in front of the panel as Mandryka, Arabella’s suitor/fiancée from the back country, demanded to know whether Arabella was faithful to him. One by one the secondary characters left the stage after silent confrontations and reconciliations with one another, with Arabella’s sister and mother being the last to leave. As Mandryka, alone on stage, sang of his wish to be forgiven by Arabella, she reappeared bearing a glass of water for him to pledge her eternal love. She was dressed in the same black dress that she wore in Act I, and the couple, instead of joyous and carefree embrace as is customary, quietly held one another and walked to the back of the stage as the panel opened to reveal pitch dark space. The blackness of the ending seems to indicate the director’s view that the couple was now embarking on real life of family and daily living, not a life of parties and fantasies.

Anne Schwanewilms (Arabella) and Ofèlia Sala (Zdenka) © A. Bofill | Gran Teatre del Liceu
Anne Schwanewilms (Arabella) and Ofèlia Sala (Zdenka)
© A. Bofill | Gran Teatre del Liceu

The production is predicated on a rather cynical and perhaps even dark view of the characters and their lives. The first act ended in the same darkness as Zdenka darkly called Arabella to join her. The three male suitors of Arabella displayed behavior that was sexually threatening to Arabella as part of their courting. In the ballroom scene in Act II, many guests were shown to indulge in excessive drinking and flirting. Arabella’s mother, Adelaide, here dressed and coiffured as a middle-aged, but still attractive woman, went off with Count Dominik for a quick adventure behind her husband’s back. Mandryka, enraged by what he mistakenly thought to be Arabella’s betrayal, engaged in an onstage sexual act with Fiakermilli. Loy chose to brings out dark and sinister sides of the seemingly genteel and harmonious bourgeoisie society depicted in the opera. While at times it was unnerving to be shown the characters behaving badly, the production certainly added a new and complex layer to the boy-meets-girl story, and made the final resolution of the new couple even more poignant as they chose to embark on a life together despite the nastiness of the world.

Michael Volle was indisposed and replaced by James Rutherford, whose Mandryka was a major revelation and his performance was an excellent complement to Schwanewilms’. He is young and looked and acted the part of Mandryka, said to be about 35 years old. His baritone was warm and elegant, without vibrato, and yet powerful and dramatic when needed. His phrasing was excellent, and he produced booming but pleasant high notes with no strain. His German diction was excellent and he seemed to have boundless energy and stamina. Ofèlia Sala as Zdenka excelled with her attractive voice which easily soared above the orchestra. She had good chemistry with Schwanewilms, and their Act I duet and other scenes together were appropriately tender and touching. Doris Soffel was luxury casting as the sisters’ mother Adelaide, and stole the show during the first several minutes of the opera with her vivid singing and fine acting.

Other secondary roles were generally well sung but not especially memorable, except for Will Hartmann’s Matteo and Susanne Elmarks’ Fiakermilli. Hartmann sang this rather thankless and challenging tenor role with ease and sensitivity. Elmark’s Fiakermilli was also a pleasure, with her voice bright but never shrill, as she skillfully negotiated the role’s coloratura. The orchestra led by Ralf Weikert produced some beautifully phrased notes, especially in the quiet moments of the first and last acts, led by strings and winds, although the brass section had some bad and mushy notes. It was especially unfortunate that the very first notes of Act II, as Mandryka was first presented with the sight of his beautiful Arabella at the ball, and one of the most beautiful orchestral passages of the opera, were not successful. But the general ensemble work of the orchestra was exemplary.