Thursday, March 17, 2011

Looking for Mr. Goldbar

Sam visited Wuppertal  to see Strauss's Arabella:

New Production (Premiere)
5 March 2011

In the Guardian a few years ago, Tim Ashley concluded his superb article on a new production of Arabella at Covent Garden, by calling the work the “most elusive of Strauss’ operas.” Most elusive? I haven‘t a clue as to what Die Frau ohne Schatten is really about, but even before I read Ashley's illuminating piece, I had some inkling of what’s going on in Strauss’ final collaboration with his longtime librettest Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Arabella (1933) is Donizetti‘s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) turned six ways from Sunday. For the Ravenswood brood, it‘s all about money and social pretense. For the Waldner Gang, it‘s only about money and social pretense. Arabella is a bit more interesting than Lucia because she keeps her cool amid her family of ambulatory psychotics: Her father is a gambling addict, who is trying to pawn her off to a wealthy Croatian acquaintance, who turns out to be dead. Her mother probably spends more on fake card readers than on groceries. Her sister, now suicide-prone, has been raised as a cross-dresser. It‘s a comedy.

Lucia seeks fortune in passion; Arabella seeks fortune and passion. Lucia fails to get what she wants and goes crazy. Arabella gets what she wants and goes Croatian. Lucia seals her fate with a dagger, Arabella with a glass of water.

Georg Köhl’s elegant new production for the Wuppertal Stages, housed within Peter Werner’s handsome sets, wisely avoids going for laughs, but he manages to go for the jugular in revealing the Waldners’ dyfunctional world without spoiling what little levity they levitate.

At one point during the performance I wondered if Banu Böke would sound as enchanting in the title role, if Claus Stump’s sumptuous costumes for her were less... sumptuous. But as she launched into her reconciliation scene with the man of Arabella’s dreams, it became clear to me that Böke’s claret gown complements a warm and rich Straussian sound, whose dash of resin in the mid-range gives depth and poignance to Arabella's thoughts. Stepping into the shoes of the last heroine Strauss created with Hofmannsthal (he died suddenly in 1929, while completing on the text) has been no easy fit, even for the greatest sopranos who have tried, and Böke is still finding her bearings. But she has the voice and temperament for Arabella as well as for her lyric cousins: the Marschallin and Ariadne. She is a singer to keep an ear on.

Kay Stiefermann as Arabella’s handsome Croatian suitor measures up admirably in finding strength in Mandryka’s wounds: the relatively young man has lost both his uncle, for whom Arabella originally was intended, as well as his wife. Strauss denies Mandryka the arching moments of self-definition that he grants Jokanaan and Barak, but Stiefermann’s soulful Byronic mien brings the character cumulatively to life over the course of three acts. His bright, metallic Heldenbariton sound has grown even more flexible since I last heard him as Kurvenal two seasons ago.

As Zdenka, Dorothea Brandt covers Zdenka’s neurotic longings with desperate pertness. Oliver Ringelhahn is a passionate, piteous Mateo. Michael Tews elicits disdain in every line his Count Waldner utters. Joslyn Rechter's Adelaide nicely reveals veneer upon veneer as Arabella's mother. Boris Leisenheimer (Elemer), Liljan Milović (Dominik), Thomas Schobert (Lamoral), Elena Fink (Fiaker-Milli), Marina Edelhagen (Card Reader), Phillip Werner (Welko) and Marco Agostini (Butler) rounded out the vocal ensemble.

Köhl's staging adds the ghost of Mandryka’s wife, who wafts on and off stage to remind us of his loss. A nice touch. But does she let him go at the end? Or does he break free of her? Or is Arabella doomed to mold herself in the image of her predecessor?

The answer might be found in the music, but Hilary Griffiths’ luminescent conducting offers no specific interpretive clues. A good thing, I‘d say.

Incidentally, Wuppertal and its municipal theater were, as you may know, home for many years to choreographer Pina Bausch, until her sudden untimely death in 2009. Wim Wenders’ film, entitled Pina, has just been released. Some have called it a documentary, but it‘s actually an hommage. You probably won’t learn any more about her than you already know, but the statements made by dancers in her troupe leave no doubts about her part in their lives. She was mother, counsellor, confessor and a creative task mistress, who still in every sense possesses them.

I had hoped to find some traces of what life really is now like for these acolytes, but neither they nor the numerous dance excerpts Wenders lovingly records offer substantive clues. What Wenders does capture in every 3D frame is their abiding, tearless sorrow at her passing.

Pina is fascinating, sometimes irritating, but it is also as cathartic as an homage to a most elusive legend can be.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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