Soffel, Doris


ArabellaRichard Strauss - Arabella

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Marco Arturo Marelli, Kurt Rydl, Doris Soffel, Renée Fleming, Genia Kühmeier, Michael Volle, Joseph Kaiser, Eric Huchet, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Thomas Dear, Iride Martinez, Irene Friedli | Opéra Bastille, Paris, 10 July 2012

You might detect a small note of annoyance in the tone of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s letter of the 22nd December 1927 to Richard Strauss at one review of Der Rosenkavalier which criticised the failure to make the best use of the opera’s strongest character, the Marschallin. It’s tempting to think that, in this letter to Strauss discussing the composition of Arabella, Hoffmanstahl was indeed suggesting revisiting the 18th century world of old Vienna and addressing that criticism as well as improving the overall dramatic structure that was a little wayward in the earlier work. In many ways Arabella is indeed a more “perfect” version of Der Rosenkavalier, but it’s a work nonetheless that few would consider better than the earlier work, magnificent even with all its glorious imperfections. Given a sympathetic production, with the right kind of cast to draw out and linger over its elegance - such as the one assembled here for the Paris Opera - one would however have to seriously consider whether the latter isn’t worthy of comparison to its earlier incarnation.

Returning to the 18th century Viennese operetta setting, Arabella does indeed demonstrate the hand of a more experienced team capable of improving many of the elements that were slightly awkward and much too self-consciously clever in Der Rosenkavalier. The romantic Mozartian intrigue with identity problems and its cross-dressing farce fits better within the tone of the later work, the introduction of waltzes placed more naturalistically within the setting of a balls at a grand hotel. Everything runs smoothly along the narrative line laid out for the drama, with a musical continuity that effortlessly glides one right through the three acts. There’s always the danger of the music being a little too smooth with Strauss in this register, but there is an awareness of the darker side of the Vienna of Maria Theresia beneath the surface glamour.

This is one further significant difference between the conception of the two works. Der Rosenkavalier was composed in 1911 before the Great War, Arabella after it in 1933, and although both seem to wallow in a nostalgia for an idealised past, there are hints in the latter work - with its specific 1866 setting just after the war with Prussia - of a more meaningful reflection on the state of the post-war Austria of Hofmannshahl and Strauss’ time. There’s nothing too dark, just the hint that the world reflected in the monetary ruin and fall from grace of former military officer Count Waldner, is unable to sustain the illusion of living in the past much longer. What is wonderful about the work is how it manages to keep this within the spirit of what is essentially a comic melodrama, where one daughter Arabella will have to be married to a rich man, while the other daughter, Zdenka, must dress and act as a man, since the family cannot afford a marriage for two daughters, and Arabella is the better prospect.

Arabella moreover, despite the apparent light tone of the work, is indeed a more fully rounded human person that the Marschallin - who was more of a concept to embody the passing of time in the more philosophically-leaning Der Rosenkavalier, although fully and poetically developed in that respect - was never allowed to be. Arabella still has all the lush romanticism that Strauss and Hofmannstahl want to capture in this lost Viennese world for a time that, after the Great War, was ever more in need of it. Without denying that times can be difficult, that sacrifices need to be made, the opera offers up the hope that fairytales can happen, that goodness, fidelity and happiness have the chance to exist. With that kind of concept, Arabella can be played as too lushly romantic, too formally classical and over-elaborate in a manner that smothers the delicate balance that the music and the drama treads. Not so in this production at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, one of the final works of the current 2011-12 season.

The staging by Marco Arturo Marelli didn’t appear obviously special, but it worked wonderfully with the intended tone of the work. The whole purpose of Arabella is to create this world of 18th century Vienna in all its glamour - idealised though it may be - so there’s not a lot of point in changing the period or the setting. Marelli’s sets looked like the typical Opéra Bastille production, bright, with coloured lighting, filling the stage and making full use of the height of the stage, yet the luxury, smoothness and cleanness of the designs suited the tone of this particular work. The set was wonderfully designed also to match the flowing nature of the work, slipping elegantly from one scene to the next, although the actual stage direction for the characters within this was a little bit walk-on/walk-off. The cleverest touch was the fall of a blue silken curtain at the end of Act I, which managed to romantically set up the first wordless encounter between Arabella and Mandryka, to be taken up from the same position at the start of Act II.

With Philippe Jordan at the helm, there were some truly astonishing sounds coming out of the orchestra pit from the remarkable Orchestra of the Paris Opera. It seemed directed with a Wagnerian punch and heft that ought to be out of place with this light comic drama, yet it only served to underline the dramatic and romantic tone to its fullest extent. It was the intelligence of the wonderful singing performances however that really carried through the full beauty of the work and the complex depths that are suggested in Hofmannstahl’s libretto and Strauss’ music. Renée Fleming’s silken tones graced Strauss’ music with warmth, glamour and sensitivity, although her performance was certainly enhanced by Jordan’s direction and in her well-matched interaction with the other singers. Alongside Michael Volle, the pairing of Arabella and Mandryka felt every bit as perfect as it should, bringing the full romantic content out of the work, but Kurt Rydl as Waldner and Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka also impressed on every level, contributing to the overall richness of the piece and showing what it can be capable of in the hands of a strong team. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a spontaneous standing ovation for a production as a whole at the Paris Opera, but it was well-merited here.

SalomeRichard Strauss - Salome

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011 | Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Angela Denoke, Alan Held, Kim Begley, Doris Soffel, Marcel Reijans, Jurgita Adamonyte | Arthaus

It’s somewhat difficult to grasp the nature of the concept behind director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2011 production of Strauss’ Salome or understand quite how it works, but it is delivered so powerfully in this Festspielhaus Baden-Baden staging that it’s not so hard to get a sense that he’s doing something absolutely right. The best thing you can do – and this ought to come naturally anyway if it’s done properly – is just focus on the singing and the music of this extraordinary, ground-breaking work of opera and the rest will fall into place, even if you don’t really understand why. There’s certainly a sense of dislocation then when you initially view this production, which has none of the superficial visual reference points that you would normally associate with its biblical Judean setting, and little even of the stylised imagery of moonlight nights and shadows of death suggested by a text derived from Oscar Wilde’s beautifully decadent overwrought imagery. Yet, as the opera itself takes shape, the surroundings fall into the background and instead simply provide an appropriate environment with space that allows Richard Strauss’ music to take centre stage.

In some respects you can see Lehnhoff’s work here as an extension of his approach to the symphonic tone poems of his Strauss and Wagner productions, most notably in Parsifal and, as a companion piece to this work, his Baden-Baden production of Elektra. Partly, those productions are representative of an interior mindset – particularly the latter – but they also are abstractly expressive of the tones and textures of the music itself and the themes that arise from the subject. The fractured, slightly titled landscape here in Salome suggests a psychological imbalance, while the contrasts that are expressed in the music and the characters are reflected in the textures of the walls and floors of the unconventional stage arrangement, with a dark glossy reflective centre-stage surrounded by crumbling plaster, broken tiles and rotting whitewashed wooden panels.

Salome

It’s far from naturalistic, but then there’s nothing naturalistic about the situation or the aggressive music that pushes the boundaries of the tonal system. Strauss’ Salome (drawn from imagery suggested by the paintings of Gustave Moreau and elaborated on by Flaubert, Mallarmé and Wilde) is far from a straightforward biblical tale, but rather an expression of dark sexual pathology, of the fulfilment of dangerous desires, of obsession and lust, a lurid study of the power that those perverse drives confer on both the object and the subject of those desires and how it differentiates men and women. That dark fascination of this Liebestod situation and conflict is there in Strauss’ orchestration, the composer scoring directly in response to the flow and the tone of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s drama, and the music is accordingly intense, intimate, perverse and disturbing, but with a romantic sweep that captures the grander epic nature of the lurid melodrama.

In his notes for the production – included in the booklet with the DVD/BD – Lehnhoff refers to the idea of the setting as taking place on the edge of a volcano. Whether this is meaningful to the viewer or not, it proves to be an effective analogy that not only suits the music and the drama, but gives it the appropriate space to work within without becoming over-imposing. Initially, the characters and the action take place on the outer rim of the stage, but gradually, as the focus of the drama and the music tightens on the nature of Salome, Jochanaan and Herod, the drama moves to the centre of this cauldron towards the centre piece Dance of the Seven Veils and a conclusion that shocked the censors back in 1905 and which still has a tremendous impact today. The tone of the production is vital to support the impact of these two key scenes, which should be dark, melancholy and perversely sordid as well as erotically suggestive, and that’s certainly the case here. The head of Jochanaan is also, I have to say, one of the most frighteningly realistic I’ve ever seen in a production of Salome. Theatrical prosthetics have come a long way over the years.

Salome

The approach to the tone of the drama and the music and how it is reflected is important, but equally as important is how it is interpreted. The cast assembled here for the Baden-Baden production deliver superb performances to match the attentive detail that is brought out of the score by the orchestra under Stefan Soltesz. Angela Denoke plays Salome as if she is in thrall to the bizarre situation and the potential that it suggests, and that suits the production perfectly. There’s a rising intensity in the performance that is in line with the score and she seems to be attuned to the slightest variations of tone within it. Alan Held is a rather more animated Jochanaan than others I have seen, less mystical and more of a firebrand prophet, and that works well with the heightened aggression on display. The singing is extremely good elsewhere, from Kim Begley as Herod and Doris Soffel as Herodias, but Marcel Reijans and Jurgita Adamonyte also make an impression in the smaller parts of Narraboth and the Page.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus is of the usual exceptionally high standards. The image is crystal clear to catch the full lighting, colour and contrasts of the set. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, breathtaking in High Definition clarity. This is really an amazing way to view and listen to this extraordinary work. The production, incidentally, is clearly a live performance, but there are no signs of an audience being present at the opening or close of this one-act opera – much like the Lehnhoff sister production of Elektra for Baden-Baden, already available on DVD. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains a good essay on the work, a full synopsis and notes on the production by the director. The disc is BD25, region-free, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are German, English, Italian, French, Spanish and Korean.