La Scena Musicale

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Strauss: Arabella

Renée Fleming, Julia Kleiter, Morten Frank Larsen, Johan Weigel
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich / Franz Welser-Möst
Decca 074 3263 (147 min)
*** $$$
I had the pleasure of being present at Renée Fleming’s first performance of Arabella with the Houston Grand Opera in 1998. She was splendid and consolidated her position as one of the great Straussians of her generation. She went on to repeat this triumph at the Met in 2001, again with Christoph Eschenbach conducting. Now comes a DVD of a 2007 performance in Zürich. Fleming is better than ever but she is part of a production by Götz Friedrich that sucks most of the charm and magic right out of the piece.

The opera is essentially a lightweight, operetta-style love story set in 1860s Vienna. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmanstahl were very specific as to time and place and the peculiarities of social etiquette and entertainment. But Friedrich chose to move the story to some vaguely 1920s place and offered no apparent imaginative concept to replace the Viennese original. What’s more, the sets suggest not so much a new vision but simply lack of time or money or both. The Act I set is so bare it looks less like a Viennese hotel room than a hospital waiting room. The critical staircase in the last scene has as much character as a neon sign. Worst of all, the orchestra appears to have been recorded in a closet and a very small one at that; the sound is dry and boxy in the extreme.

- Paul E. Robinson

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