For the first time in ten years, the Met is mounting Otto Schenk's Arabella, first seen in 1983. This is one of the Met's classic Strauss productions, more of a piece with Nathaniel Merrill’s Der Rosenkavalier than Herbert Wernicke’s stunning Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Malin Byström as Arabella © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera
Malin Byström as Arabella
© Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera

Schenk’s Arabella is predictably opulent, fully “period,” almost entirely cast in muddy greens and browns, but at least rather pretty. Even given the Met’s storage technology, it feels its age. The construction of Günter Schneider-Siemssen’s sets is worrying. More than once, the walls shook just a little too much at a slammed door. Our Arabella almost fell foul of what I think was an errant tablecloth. Some of the fabrics now look shabbily worn. In a way, this isn’t inappropriate, given that this is Strauss’s most nostalgic work, and more purely so than the ironic Rosenkavalier or the lost simplicities that Capriccio deals with so subtly. And there is another layer of nostalgia now too, as space and production and work overlap, a longing for a literal and didactic style of opera less accepted now that time has moved on, even in New York. 

Stage director Stephen Pickover has done a fine job coordinating what, in Met terms, is an uncommonly European cast. The story is one of Hofmannsthal’s glorious messes, but the bottom line is that, like Così, all ends well in the end. Arabella and the rural lord Mandryka resolve to marry, as do Zdenka (Arabella’s sister, forced to live as “Zdenko”, a boy, as the family is on the financial slide) and an officer, Matteo (who has fallen in love with Arabella through letters mostly written by Zdenka, and who mistakenly sleeps with her rather than Arabella at the start of act three).

Michael Volle as Mandryka © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera
Michael Volle as Mandryka
© Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera

It helps Pickover that he has some principals who are able genuinely to act, and a cast that can play a comedy without turning it into the slapstick that would miss the heart of this work. That enables links to emerge with Così and Figaro, other comedies whose humour barely masks class conflict and tense renegotiations of sexual roles. In general, though, the real heart of the work was far too much left to the imagination. One didn’t get a sense that Arabella is supposed to be seen as pure and virtuous until the very last moments, as she descends stairs in the foyer of her hotel, clad all in white and lit in a luminous haze. Partly this was a result of Malin Byström’s flat, two-dimensional portrayal: there was almost no sense, here, of a psychological grappling, of a trajectory that allows her to go from frolicking in a sleigh to very earnestly falling in love. She just seems bought off by Mandryka’s promise of cash. Byström sang, though, with the porcelain tones of Strauss sopranos of old, if not the tortured, veiled dignity.

Michael Volle as Mandryka and Malin Byström as Arabella © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera
Michael Volle as Mandryka and Malin Byström as Arabella
© Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera

Michael Volle’s Mandryka had far more depth. A thin dignity and a fearsome anger vie for his behaviour as he tries to win Arabella while dealing with a city, Vienna, that he does not understand. Volle, a gravelly baritone who is making the move towards Wotan at the end of the decade, acted and sang with a fiery temperament and an apt honesty that never degenerated into the boorish parody of Rosenkavalier’s Baron Ochs. Impressive too was Juliane Banse, also making her debut, as Zdenka/“Zdenko”. Perhaps her voice is not quite large enough for this colossal house, and her singing up top was rather taut, but she showed outstanding attention to Hofmannsthal’s text (unsurprising, for such a fine singer of Lieder), and resisted the temptation, commonly fallen to in trouser roles, to play “Zdenko” as anything but the enraptured young woman Zdenka really is. Roberto Saccà, our Matteo, was suitably eager, and has character does not allow for a great deal more. More minor roles were well taken, although Audrey Luna’s lacerating Fiakermilli was identical to her work as Ariel in Thomas Adès's The Tempest, rather than a development of yodelling, as Strauss intended.

Philippe Auguin’s conducting was fleet and light, but sadly lacking in charm, and oddly disconnected from what was going on upstage at times. He might have lingered more, for if you can’t linger over this, some of Strauss’s most purely beautiful writing, where can you?