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Strauss - Arabella [DVD] [2008]
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 1 November 2014
This is a very safe and traditional production of Arabella, with the story presented more or less exactly as it should be. The sets are sparse but attractive and the costumes seemed to me to be about the right period (1860s Vienna). The only thing that was missing for me was a staircase in the final Act – the critical entrances of Zdenka-as-a-girl and Arabella-with-the-glass-of-water both really need a long curving staircase to make their proper impacts! Elsewhere there are some nice touches – for example at the crucial moment at the Ball when Zdenko gives Matteo “Arabella’s” key, the Fortune Teller glides slowly across the stage holding up the accusing tarot card, which I thought was brilliant.

This performance really begs the question of how long, in this day and age, singers can carry on singing the parts of young lovers such as Arabella and Mandryka – especially now that we have HD close-up. I have always been a great admirer of Renee Fleming, but I have to say that at 55 she is too old to be singing Arabella. Of course she looks too old, but the worst part is that she SOUNDS too old for it. She no longer has the smooth, creamy tone that she used to have, nor the security of intonation, and she sounds very strained under pressure. Worse still is Thomas Hampson. At 59 he no longer has the look or the sound of the youthful Mandryka (he’s actually three years older than Albert Dohmen who sings Arabella’s father). I had to laugh when he got Arabella’s note at the Ball and had to hold it at arms’ length to be able to read it! I'm very familiar with his problem, but it really doesn't look good here. The best performances by far are Hanna-Elisabeth Muller as an (almost) believable Zdenko/Zdenka and Daniel Behle as an especially ardent Matteo. You can tell by the ovations at the end that the audience on the night shared my opinion, they both got a more enthusiastic reception than Fleming or Hampson. I once saw a poll of “opera’s most annoying characters” – I can’t remember all the details, but I know that the Fiakermilli was somewhere near the top. Daniela Fehle’s squawky performance here won’t help it. The other parts are all very well taken.

The Dresden Staatskapelle have Strauss’s music in their blood and they play brilliantly for Christian Thielemann. It’s a great shame that Fleming and Hampson weren’t filmed in these roles 20 years ago – it would have been superb. As it is, we just have a taste of what might have been, just a bit too late.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 15 January 2011
I will not write more extensively on this version. I bought it for Fleming - who has not disappointed me - but her Mandryka is really not up to the job. Singers like Larsen, who clearly struggles all the way, should not be allowed to sing next to a first rate star like Fleming. Potential buyers should also be warned that some of the most beautiful music in the opera has been inexplicably cut. When conductors take liberties of this sort, it should be clearly stated 'on the tin': cut version.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 27 August 2008
This may not be the definitive Arabella but it has more than enough going for it. Reservations I had when I bought it were unfounded. After an overly-schmaltzy Capriccio and indications, from her Met Opera interview stint, that Fleming had taken on the mannerisms of a talk-show host, I was not expecting great things from her. But here she is at her formidable best. The voice is in peak condition, burnished but not lacking characterization. Her acting is not quite at today's top level but very accomplished nevertheless. This time she does not overdo the toothpaste smile and gives us the many facets of a character who, let's face it, stands alone in this ship of fools. Despite her age she manages to convince as a young woman in love with the idea of love. Maybe performing on Della Casa's home turf gave her extra inspiration but whatever, this is a great performance.

She is almost matched by Julia Kleiter in the difficult role of Zdenka, coming closer than most to convincing us that a good-looking woman can pass as a man for the first twenty years of her life. She has a very fine voice, totally different in timbre from Fleming's.

After that we go downhill. As the Waldners, Muff and Kallisch cannot hold a candle to McIntyre and Dernesch in the Met performance, likewise for Sen Guo as Die Fiakermilli compared to the young Dessay. But the biggest disappointment is Morten Frank Larsen as Mandryka. The part is such a caricature it's difficult to conceive of any competent actor being unable to bring it to life, but Larsen manages. Plus, his singing is variable at best, with an obtrusive wobble in Act 1. The various suitors are OK without adding or subtracting from the overall performance. Johan Weigel's Matteo is in some ways more acceptable, visually, than the bug-eyed David Kuebler at the Met. It is a two-dimensional effort but you could argue that that's appropriate for this part.

I watched this dvd after immersing myself in the 1953 Covent Garden performance. As difficult as the sound is on those cds, far more of Strauss's luxurious orchestration comes across than it does here. It may be unfair to compare Wesler-Most to Kempe, perhaps the greatest all-time Strauss conductor, but he is so wooden, so insensitive, he almost spoils Fleming's magnificent "Aber der Richtige" and where even Larsen cannot fail to respond to her spellbinding "Und du wirst men Gebieter sein", Wesler-Most goes forging ahead as if he has a skat game on hold. This conductor is no Straussian.

Stage direction is excellent, certainly a step or two better than the rather wooden Met show, and the production is interesting, sort of minimalist without being threadbare. I love the gauze curtain effect in Act 2, symbolizing Arabella and Mandryka's contact with or seclusion from the world around them. Sound and picture are up to today's high standards.

For my money Fleming gives us the best Arabella on dvd or cd and Kleiter the best Zdenka. For those two alone I treasure this dvd. Shortcomings elsewhere may rule it out for some people. I'll certainly return to the Met performance for Brendel's Mandryka and keep playing the 1953 Kempe to remind myself of how the music should sound. But that's opera. You seldom get it all, and when the main part is as superbly executed as here, you have something very worthwhile.
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on 26 May 2015
The opera centres on the title-character and her unwillingly cross-dressing sister, Zdenka, whose impoverished parents can only afford to launch one daughter into society. Zdenka loves the penniless Matteo but Matteo loves Arabella, who in turns adores Mandryka, a handsome stranger she has met in the street. However, Mandryka, heir to a fortune, has been drawn to Arabella by her father, who had sent him her portrait. First he wins her hand, then - due to Zdenka's contriving to sleep with Matteo, who believes he is making love to Arabella - loses it. All is resolved at the close in a satisfactory happy ending.

Arabella's problem is that, while reprising many of Strauss' mannerisms of earlier operas, it lacks the lasting memorableness of Der Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos, and it is not helped by the staging, which, in the current cliché, is moved from the 1860s to the First World War. The whole purpose of Arabella is to create a Viennese period setting centered upon the 1860s bourgeoisie in all its glamour, so there is not a lot of point in changing the period or the setting. It sheds virtually no new insight onto the opera. On the other hand the opera has not been spoilt by 'cleverness' and distracting modern anachronism.

The part of Arabella might have been written for Renée Fleming, and she might actually have the most ideal Strauss lyric soprano voice ever. She inhabits the character from start to finish and looks just lovely. There is no doubt that Renée Fleming singing Strauss is the main attraction. The softness and glow of her singing at the end of Act 1 and the start of Act 2 is balm to the ear, as are her ravishing pianissimi throughout, but there's no disguising the fact that her voice has lost some of its creaminess and her usual mannerisms may not please everyone.

Thomas Hampson as Mandryka has a strong stage presence but his stiff acting doesn't convey the characters aristocratic bearing and the voice sounds dry and undernourished. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is a convincing boyish Zdenka and Daniel Behle an ardent, strongly sung Matteo. They really add freshness and vitality to the production. Albert Dohmen's voice sounds undernourished too, but he is a believable graf Waldner. Wonderful playing from Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann.

Sound and picture of excellent quality.
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