This DVD, recorded a year ago in June 2007, captures Götz Friederich's Zurich Opera House production of the final opera produced by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In the booklet, Renée Fleming enthuses that 'singing Arabella is simply a joy from beginning to end, it is one of only a handful of roles in my repertoire which feel as if they could have been composed for me.' Even if this recording doesn't always capture Fleming's voice at its most seductive, there's no denying not only that the role, which has now been in her repertoire for a decade (she first sang it in Houston in 1998), is wonderfully suited to the American soprano's voice but that her temperament is ideal for portraying this 'woman of great integrity, the very soul of graciousness and strength,' as she sees her. She is surrounded by generally fine cast and given excellent support from Franz Welser-Möst.
The production itself raises some questions, though. The opera is given in the so-called Munich version, which as well as eliding Acts Two and Three, as sanctioned by the composer, also includes several large cuts from the original Act Three, which there is little evidence of Strauss authorising. The largest of these cuts consists of a hundred or so bars (just before Mandryka's 'Ich bin nicht wert solche Verzeihung!'), where much of the misunderstanding is explained. Although these cuts are commonplace in the theatre, it's an especial shame to lose so much material here because Fleming is particularly fine in the rest of the final scene.
Friedrich updates the action of the opera to an unspecific, modern metropolis. Although this helps him create a production that's full of clean lines and smart minimalism, it's rather at odds with the opera's whole pretext. Hofmannsthal sets out to satirise the decadence of Viennese society but decadence presupposes an amoral reliance on certain aspects of a rich, decaying past. This past doesn't exist in Friedrich's production so much of the opera's meaning is compromised. Additionally, the work is saturated with specific cultural and temporal references, many of which seem incongruous in the modern world evoked here: the social and financial circumstances that make Zdenka's transvestism necessary; Waldner's pronounced Viennese accent; the Fiakerball.
However, despite an uninteresting design for the first act (a smart but bare hotel room), there's a great deal of glamour and glitz at the ball and the stairwell of the final scene is visually effective. The production also helps to underline the modern nature of Arabella as a woman intent on making her own choices, something that a smartly dressed Fleming captures extremely well, coming across as empowered but not manipulative, as can be a danger. This still sits ill, though, with her language of obedience in 'Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein', although that is more a fault with the work itself. As her sister, Zdenka, Julia Kleiter is almost in danger of stealing the show. Her bright and beautiful soprano is a constant joy as is her impassioned acting; her final appearance and 'outing' are movingly done and she negotiates the high-lying role with ease. The Act One duet, 'Aber der Richtige', is an undoubted highlight of the score but is particularly beautifully performed here by Fleming and Kleiter.
Morten Frank Larsen makes a striking Mandryka, tall and elegant. It's not the most alluring account, vocally, but he handles most of the role's difficult tessitura admirably, only tiring as the long evening comes to a close. He throws himself whole-heartedly into the acting and my only complaint might be that it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between his ironic outbursts once he feels he's been betrayed and his heartfelt exclamations. His scenes with Fleming, however, are touching and there is a feeling of genuine chemistry between them; the final reconciliation is suitably touching.
Of the smaller roles, veteran Alfred Muff displays the same vocal security, comic touch and Viennese accent as Waldner that had made his recent Baron Ochs in concert at the Royal Festival Hall with Zurich Opera so enjoyable. Sen Guo is a secure Fiakermilli, frivolous and self-obsessed. Johan Weigel deals with Strauss's typically unsympathetic tenor writing well, although not without hints of strain, and acts convincingly. Cornelia Kallisch's Adelaide provides a good mixture of neurosis and petty social concerns.
Welser-Möst's no-nonsense approach to the score occasionally sounds a little hard-driven but he keeps the drama moving admirably and the playing of the Zurich Opera orchestra is efficient and clean, if lacking some of the luxuriousness that can be brought to the score.
Fans of Fleming have no need to hesitate but this stylish and well cast production also has a lot more to offer. The wide-screen presentation benefits from sensible camera direction and very decent sound. Some slight issues with the updated setting and the incomplete text notwithstanding, it can be highly recommended.
By Hugo Shirley