Notes and Editorial Reviews
A film production to revisit many times.
The hero appears on his white charger, saves the family finances, arranges the marriage of one daughter, himself marries the other daughter and everyone lives happily ever after. Well not quite.
Count Waldner is an inveterate card gambler/loser. His daughter Zdenka, acting the role of a boy because the family cannot afford two daughters out in the Carnival season of Vienna of 1860, loves Matteo. Matteo thinks he loves her sister Arabella. Meanwhile Arabella is waiting for Mr Right: and along comes ‘shed-loads-of-money’ Mandryka who obliges instantly by falling in love with her. By Zdenka’s ruse, to try and make Matteo her own, she persuades him to visit what he
thinks will be Arabella’s room that night. She plans to be there herself. Matteo visits the bedroom late at night believing it to be Arabella’s. Mandryka, having overheard the planning of the ruse, believes Arabella to be duplicitous. When accusations flow, weapons are fetched and chaos reigns, Zdenka descends from her room and confesses. Matteo realises he loves her and not Arabella who loves Mandryka who re-finances the family. So everyone lives happily ever after? Well not quite. Hofmannsthal wrote the libretto. He revised Act I with Strauss. Before he could revise Acts II and III Hofmannsthal’s son committed suicide and then hours before the funeral Hofmannsthal himself suffered a fatal heart attack.
This production is the 1977 film version. The events take place on Shrove Tuesday the last day of the Carnival Season after which match-making is suspended. How’s that for pressure on Arabella to marry a rich suitor. The production is ‘set’ on location, three only being required. The Waldners’ sitting room in a faded gentility hotel; the anteroom/staircases to the Cabbies’ ball at a different (upmarket) hotel; and the entrance hall of the Waldners’ hotel. So no views of orchestra or Solti and the prelude to Act III (none elsewhere and no overture) depicting musically the events in Zdenka’s room when Matteo visits, played against a screen announcing that it is indeed the prelude.
Now if that little lot is not sufficiently different then accept that the characters do not sing on the film: they mime to their own voices - or more prosaically the film is dubbed. Oh horror did I hear? Well let me assure you that it is not. This is an astonishingly good production wherein you quickly become used to seeing the effortless production of stratospheric notes; the even, controlled breathing and the energy expended by Weikl (Mandryka) and Gruberova (Fiakermilli, the Cabmen’s mascot) leaping, and being thrown, respectively around the ‘set’ at the Ball.
Both Gundula Janowitz (Arabella) and Sona Ghazarian (Zdenko as ‘him’ and Zdenka as ‘her’) are very experienced in their respective roles appearing in many notable productions. The only reservation about Janowitz is that it is a little difficult to accept that she is very young and that this is the last night of her girlhood, particularly when there are one or two not-so-kind close-ups. The other ‘silly’ point is that the physical build of the two daughters means that Matteo (Kollo) must be more than usually naïve not to realise the difference even in the darkened bedroom. But who cares – accept that little irrationality and enjoy the delightful singing and some serious acting.
Janowitz displays her wide vocal range to great effect. Here she powers a note, there she floats it. Her solo aria at the end of Act I is superb: studied lyricism, varied colouring, stunning clarity and smoothness of tone. This is true also of her aria leading into the duet with Ghazarian Aber der Richtige (track 6) where their splendid vocal balance increases the pleasure exponentially.
Ghazarian produces a crystal clear sound – with almost a sparkling spring quality. She has less opportunity for vocal show but is totally convincing in her love for Kollo (Matteo). This Zdenka would indeed sacrifice her happiness for his. She produces the first lyrical moments in the opera to which Kollo responds so well.
It almost goes without saying that Kollo copes superbly with the high-lying tessitura that Strauss wrote. This was (is) Kollo at his vocal height with no sound of vocal effort and providing powerful dramatic acting particularly in the last Act.
I enjoyed enormously both the singing and the acting of the Waldner parents with their respective beliefs in the power of the playing cards. He is the optimistic inevitable loser at the gambling table, she is the justified believer in the fortune-teller’s reading of the cards.
Margarita Lilowa (Waldner’s wife, Adelaide) has a wonderfully creamy, almost sultry, voice; as attractive to the ear as she is to the eye. She is vocally secure and reflects superbly her financial and familial anxieties. Kraemmer (Count Waldner) is outstanding. He is vocally assured both as the gambler blind to his financial plight and later as the parent / husband taking up his responsibilities in the denouement – note particularly the brief touching interchange with Janowitz. His gestures, of which examples are, impatient finger drumming, delighted but hesitant self-help of money from Weikl’s (Mandryka’s) wallet and the finger flexing of the card player believing in his luck: all supreme touches which perfectly characterise him.
Weikl is the baritone hero, Mandryka, who uses his distinctive timbre to great effect. There is almost a steely vocal reverence at the beginning of his meeting with Kraemmer which he mellows into his lyrical arioso Wenn aber das die (in track 11 disc 1) before moving excitedly onto this account of his assets. In his lyrical moments with Janowitz he demonstrates the strength of his vocal colouring. I find it difficult to choose between her beautifully delivered and affecting final aria and the duet she sings with Weikl Und du wirst mein gebieter sein (disc 1 track 17) where the sublime music enables her to show how notes should be floated and he provides a perfect vocal balance.
Edita Gruberova has the almost unbelievable coloratura role of the Fiakermilli. So at the extreme is it that, even with such an exponent of the note on high, it is impossible to distinguish more than the odd word. She carries it off well by, for the most part, ‘tra – la-la-ing’ as an inherent part of the laughter and gaiety of the character. It would be difficult to accept even on film that she could do otherwise when she is born aloft by the chorus at the ball. It is indeed Gruberova and so those unbelievable notes are duly middled, but it is not an aurally comfortable role.
Martha Mödl’s cameo role is as the bespectacled cardigan wearing fortune-teller who despatches with ease the vocal demands - even if on one occasion (and only one) there is a question mark over mouth movement and sound track co-ordination.
The three original suitors for the hand of Janowitz are sung by Fransson, Helm and Rydl. Fransson has the slightly impatient role of Elemer which apart from the occasional hesitancy he sings comfortably. Helm’s Dominik is truly tender and smooth - the brief (suggestive?) interchange with Lilowa at the ball is very polished. Rydl carries effortlessly the role of the more mature but unsuccessful sad suitor who is rewarded deservedly with Janowitz’s last dance.
The setting enables that dance to spill over to different levels: it provides the ideal background for the various interactions at the ball from the supper room to quiet seating. Elegant costumes match the settings and if the central candelabra of the Waldners’ room in Act I occasionally impedes facial visibility it is but a small price to pay for what is otherwise a room perfectly representing waning fortunes.
Solti is so at home playing Strauss that the sheer enjoyment of conductor and orchestra is self-evident on this non-orchestral visual DVD.
The booklet matches the age of the production: cast list, track list with participants, track lengths, production and DVD credits and an introductory essay. All as it should be and so helpful.
-- Robert McKechnie, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Arabella, Op. 79 by Richard Strauss
Sona Ghazarian (Soprano),
Gundula Janowitz (Soprano),
René Kollo (Tenor),
Edita Gruberova (Soprano),
Bernd Weikl (Baritone)
Sir Georg Solti
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1929-1932; Germany
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