Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Arabella @ Royal Opera, London

21, 24, 27 May, 1, 5, 7, 9, 12 June 2004

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

Peter Mussbach makes his directorial debut at the Royal Opera House with a spanking new production of Richard Strauss’ Arabella. Booing on the opening night led at least one critic to suggest that the ROH audience should grow up – and I agree with him. This may not be the perfect Arabella, but it’s pretty good nonetheless and some star performances make it an evening to remember.

The striking, single set by Erich Wonder – pure Vienna Sezession, not out of keeping with the late 19th Century setting of the opera – consists of sweeping staircases in wood, metal, perspex (glass?), the public areas of obviously the most fashionable hotel of its time, in which the Count Waldner and his family are living well beyond their means.

His beautiful eldest daughter Arabella must make a rich marriage – fast – while poor Zdenka, victim of the family’s inability to bring out two daughters, must dress as a boy and yearn in vain for her sister’s most ardent admirer, Matteo.

Crunch time has come, too – it’s the end of Carnival in this decadent Viennese society, and the traditional Cabbie’s Ball. By the end of the evening Arabella must choose between her three suitors, none of which has touched her heart…

This production, and most of the cast, are shared with the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris. Unfortunately Karita Mattila was indisposed, but her place in the title role was amply filled by Nancy Gustafson, due to sing the role for one performance on 7 June and therefore already in rehearsal. Gustafson certainly looked the part – young and beautiful, definitely a heartbreaker – and sang with great sweetness of tone, though I was always waiting for her to really let go. However Aber der Richtige, the lovely duet in which Arabella tells her sister Zdenka that she will know when the right man stands in front of her, was simply gorgeous.

This was partly because Zdenka was played by a vibrant (as always) Barbara Bonney, in radiant voice. She does a good trouser role too, though her hair is distressingly like one of Meg Ryan’s earlier gamin styles. And that brings us to costumes in general, which are very odd. Its all too easy now to throw together a jumble of ideas and call it Post Modernism, and the costumes for this production make no sense whatsoever.

Arabella is first encountered in a black cocktail number and high heels, which showed off Nancy Gustafson’s shapely legs to perfection but didn’t really fit with the pony tail, the set or anything else. In the ball scene she’s in a ’50s powder blue chiffon number – again, decorative, but the point is…?

Her suitors (John Daszak as a self-confident Count Elemer, Quentin Hayes as Count Dominik, Iain Paterson as Count Lamoral) are in white tie and shades, looking rather like Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Count Dracula. Poor Matteo (American tenor Raymond Very, making his House debut) comes off worst – in theory a military man, he looks more like a Hell’s Angel, with long blond hair and leathers.

There’s also some very odd movement direction, with a hotel bellboy inexplicably twitching his way across the stage for no apparent reason (was this the one that appeared at the Ball wearing a Star Wars mask?).

All these distractions pale into insignificance however once the star of the show appears, in the form of Thomas Hampson as Mandryka. The nephew and heir of an old comrade of Arabella’s father, he has seen her portrait and fallen in love. Here is a character out of every young girl’s fairy tale book – tall, dark and mysterious, with oodles of money and a romantic heart to boot.

Hampson held the stage, his rich, warm baritone thrilling and his ardour – and despair on thinking Arabella has betrayed him – utterly convincing. The final heart-stoppingly romantic moment, when Arabella descends the staircase to bring him a glass of water – a symbol that she loves and forgives him – is superb.

Cornelia Kallisch, making her Royal Opera debut, is an impressive Adelaide, Countess Waldner; Artur Korn is charismatic as her impoverished and desperate husband, and Diana Damrau sparkles as the Fiakermilli in the Ball scene. Christoph von Dohnányi, a leading Strauss exponent, disappointed in the pit however. There was nothing actually wrong, but the orchestra failed to catch light.

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Arabella @ Royal Opera, London