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July 02, 2012

Renée Fleming Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Ian Patrick 2012
The streets of Paris were crowded and alive with young revelers on Saturday. It was gay pride weekend and the carnival atmosphere filled the Place de la Bastille with men and women in colorful attire that could leave more or less to the imagination. As tempting as joining the party was, I soldiered through the crowd to the international airport terminal that is Opera de Paris’ Bastille opera house to watch Strauss’ Arabella hand that proverbial glass of water to her intended. That’s not kink, it’s simply a moment of bizarre understatement which those who love opera love almost as much as grand spectacle and dramatic excesses of all kinds.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes hundreds of artists to make some of these most basic of opera moments work, and in Arabella that challenge is particularly great. The story is a wisp of a thing about a titled Viennese family on the brink of bankruptcy whose only hope to survive is to marry their oldest, Arabella, sung in Paris by superstar Renée Fleming, off to a wealthy suitor. Her father has taken steps to ensure this including soliciting potential grooms via the mail and dressing the family’s youngest daughter Zdenka, here a radiant Genia Kühmeier, as a boy to cut out the competition and reduce cost. Arabella meanwhile is the belle of just about every ball until almost against all expectations her father's plans come to fruition when she falls for Mandryka who has responded to his dead uncle's solicitation as a suitor. The drama arises from everything not working out quite as simply as it is supposed to, though this is an opera at times blissfully free of event.

But the Opera de Paris placed some very good bets on a team with a great track record with the more delicate and ephemeral of Strauss’ operas. In 2008, a nearly identical team fashioned a superb staging of Capriccio for the Vienna State Opera, which was one of the highlights of my recent opera going career. This Arabella wasn’t quite that good, but it was spectacular in its own way nevertheless. Ms. Fleming lives up to her star billing in her core repertory here. Granted she may not look like a woman celebrating what her character calls the last night of her childhood, but she certainly can sound like it, all bright, lush and beautiful. There is a warmth and inherent melancholic edge to her sound that fits so perfectly with Strauss that it is hard to pay too much attention to whatever legitimate criticisms one might raise on finer points of vocal technique. She is again placed among a stellar cast including one of the most outstanding of current German baritone’s Michael Volle as Mandryka. He portrays a rough-around-the-edges masculinity that imbues the whole opera with an internal logic that sustains it during even the thinnest moments. And while on the topic of vocalists, I must mention another artist whom I’m eager to see on American shores much more frequently , soprano Genia Kühmeier who stepped into this run with this performance as Zdenka. Her Act I duet with Fleming was so achingly beautiful you could wrap yourself up in it for days. Kühmeier's easy and bright ringing tone is a joy and she adds further depth to an already great cast. Kurt Rydl sang Arabella’s father Waldner a bit on the bombastic side and Joseph Kaiser, who was announced as ill before the performance but sang anyway, managed a respectable Matteo.

Also on board again as with the Vienna Capriccio was Paris’ music director Philippe Jordan who manages again to give Strauss a quick-on-his-feet sweep. He kept the pressure on the cast volume-wise, but never to the point of forcing anyone to go beyond where they were comfortable from the sounds of it. The design team also returned again under director Marco Arturo Marelli who employed a similar mobile, dream-like set to maximize a sense of time flowing by like a ball or a party. Set elements entered and exited the viewing area on a large circular rotating stage bisected by several panels that each rotated on their own axis to reveal either the paneling of a 19th-century parlor or a burnished silver wall. At one end, the parlor wall gives way to a painted view of a partly cloudy sky. But the color motif here is the steely blue of Arabella’s gown. It matches the curtain used to close Act I and outside of white and a few dashes of pink or purple, it dominates the stage. In one of the more stirring passages, its that same gown that is worn by numerous imagined Arabella stand-ins that haunt Mandryka’s understandably jealous mind in Act II as he sees her dancing and kissing any number of young, handsome bare-chested men as the couples wheel and dance across the stage in pairs.

The tone is perfect throughout without ever managing to take all these events too seriously and keeping things dreamy and romantic. The pair of duets between Mandryka and Arabella anchor the show beautifully and can—and do—bring tears. To be fair, despite its strengths, though, this Arabella is not a revolution in opera. But what it does represent, I think, is exactly the kind of production and success that a company like Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera has been searching around in the dark for. It is decidedly not an old-fashioned grade school diorama of a show. It looks modern, and pretty as well. But it is also not radically reinterpreting or sharply investigating the source material either. It's the kind of show that might trick you into thinking its something daring, when in fact, its just he latest update of something that's good, but decidedly familiar. However as New York audiences have found out in the last few years, wanting something like this and getting something like this are two very different things. In the meantime, Paris has a wonderfully sung Arabella that runs for three more performances in Paris through July 10.

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It's from before you started blogging, but did you see the 2004 Covent Garden Arabella? Dohnanyi/Mattila, Bonney, Hampson, Very, Damrau. It was sheer bliss, and I think had played in Paris before that. I reviewed it for SFCV.
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