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Musically stunning

Richard Strauss's 'Arabella' at Covent Garden,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Richard Strauss's Arabella can be a tricky piece onto which to put a contemporary, directorial gloss. At Opera North in 1999, Francisco Negrin attempted to turn the opera into a fairy story, complete with Fiakermilli as Fairy God Mother. At London's Royal Opera House on Saturday 12 June 2004, Peter Mussbach placed the opera in a glossily chic modern milieu.

The opera opened in the foyer of a shiny, modern hotel. This was the fixed set for all the acts; a staircase snaked up the left hand side of the stage leading to a rear balcony which spanned the width of the stage. Off this, to the right of the stage was a sort of half landing coming forward, whose primary purpose seemed to be to allow the producer an alternative location to place singers, high above the stage. A pair of escalators led from the balcony to undisclosed upper reaches. So far, so good, after all Act I is set in a hotel. But the curtain went up on Adelaide and the Fortune Teller rather awkwardly consulting over the solitary piece of furniture in the hotel foyer.

Still, another feature of the performance was becoming apparent. The orchestra, under Christoph von Dohnanyi, produced the most wonderfully transparent textures. Throughout the evening, Dohnanyi encouraged his band to provide a light web of texture which sounded stunning and allowed singers to get their words over. In an opera almost overburdened with dialogue, this was a distinct advantage.

Cornelia Kallisch cut a very stylish figure as Adelaide, Arabella's mother; perhaps almost too stylish, after all she has just sold her last piece of jewellery. But Kallisch made Adelaide a sympathetic figure; not the caricature that the role can sometime become. Kallisch sounded stylish and not at all blowsy.

As her daughter Zdenka, who is being brought up as a boy, Barbara Bonney was wonderfully intense; her clean bright voice combining beautifully with her boyish looks. Raymond Very was Matteo, the suitor that Arabella has discarded but whom Zdenka is in love with herself, and stringing him along with a series of fake letters from Arabella. Matteo is supposed to be an army officer, but he was given a long, dyed blond pony tail. But no matter, Very has a voice which seems to love Strauss. Matteo can seem a rather ungrateful part, but Very managed to coax the most from it.

Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss's 'Arabella' at Covent Garden. Photo © 2004 Catherine Ashmore
Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss's 'Arabella' at Covent Garden. Photo © 2004 Catherine Ashmore

In the title role, Karita Mattila looked as stunning as ever, a real breaker of hearts. She was soignée and flirty and not a little cold. Mattila was superb in the dialogue, bringing diction and clarity and, with Bonney, delineating a very real relationship between the two sisters.

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Copyright © 20 June 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK


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