Arabella in Dortmund

On the face of it Arabella is conventional operatic stuff. Drawing on the success of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss combines a luscious, lyrical score with another exploration of love, in this case one which triumphs over parental manipulation and frivolity, both widespread in a decadent society. Yet with Hofmannstahl’s acute libretto, the piece goes deeper. The heroine is, of course, searching for the right chap (der richtige Mann), but more than that self-fulfilment and Lebenslust (joy in life). Such can be achieved only by departing from the superficiality and hypocrisy of the urban world she has known, and identifying instead with nature and personal honesty.

All of this was brought out in Jens-Daniel Herzog’s perceptive production at Dortmund. But, as he also, shows, for Arabella this comes at a price. Mandryka whose rejection of the urban society and whose qualities of directness and spontaneity appeal to her, is – if not as boorish as Baron Ochs – awkwardly ungainly and at times brutish.  It is not clear that the match will succeed. As this illustrates, the success of Herzog’s staging is primarily due to its subtle characterisation; always interesting, often comic but never too caricatural. Updating the setting to a near contemporary period with, for example, a plausible surfeit of inebriation and sexual gropings, added to the strength of the drama. At the same time, it rendered Zdenka and her predicament – dressed up as a boy because her father cannot afford to get her married off – even more problematic than usual. And the tiresome unravelling of this part of the plot was the weak point of the evening.

The Dortmund Opera fielded an excellent cast, remarkably all drawn from its own ensemble. Eleonore Marguerre was a rich-voiced Arabella and if she does not have the purity of sound in the highest register of the greatest Straussian sopranos she more than compensates for it in her ability to communicate emotion through the shading of vocal colour and, above all, in her multi-faceted dramatic portrayal – every nuance of facial and bodily expression was there. Sangmin Lee was equally impressive as Mandryka. His burnished baritone was just right for the role and, in line with Herzog’s interpretation, he did not flinch from underlining the less attractive side of his character by adding a sharp edge to his phrasing and vocal delivery. Ashley Thouret, as Zdenko, was suitably impetuous and deployed her still maturing soprano to good effect. Among the rest, I would pick out Thomas Paul’s forthright Matteo and Almerija Delic’s comic but never exaggerated Adelaide.

In the pit, Gabriel Feitz offered a sympathetic and, at times, passionate accompaniment, while not quite obtaining from the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra the heart-melting romantic sound which the score demands.