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When the chorus did enter, it was obvious that this ball was far too chic for something as mundane as dancing. The chorus were simply required to provide a backdrop of characters dressed in way that I presume the costume designer, Andrew Schmidt-Futterer, thinks stylish. Fiakermilli was also unfortunately attired and required to cavort with the chorus in a way the director presumably regarded as suitable for her new cabaret artiste persona. Still, this did not trouble Diana Damrau, who has followed up her stunning Queen of the Night here with a glittering performance of an equally problematical coloratura role. Rarely have I heard Fiakermilli's pyrotechnics so accurately and effectively sung.

Acts II and III were played without a break and during the entr'acte we were treated to the spectacle of a person walking upside down across the stage under the balcony and to a fall of red petals. It is here that we need to consider the wider implications of the set, because the whole design (snaking staircase, balcony, half-landing) can be read as a representation of a set of male genitals in profile. If we bear in mind that the entr'acte takes place whilst Zdenka and Matteo are making love for the first time, then the concept behind Mussbach's production starts to fall into place. Consider also the fact that Arabella and Zdenka's Act I duet, 'Er ist der richtige', takes place with them standing on the half landing which represents the testicles. Nothing is made of this in the programme and I have no idea how many people in the audience could read Mussbach's sub-text. If indeed it matters at all. But the performance was on such a high level that it could be enjoyed without worrying about Mussbach's concept.

After the entr'acte we encounter Very's Matteo, wonderfully confused and bewildered at Arabella's entry. Mandryka's anger here was not enough, it lacked edge. In fact, throughout Act II and III, once Hampson had shed his amazing fur coat, his character seemed to lessen, to lose its distinctiveness and merge into the general melee of Arabella's suitors. Sometimes, his anger in Act III verged on the risible and gave rise to amusement in the audience, not a good sign.

Karita Mattila as Arabella and Thomas Hampson as Mandryka. Photo © 2004 Catherine Ashmore
Karita Mattila as Arabella and Thomas Hampson as Mandryka. Photo © 2004 Catherine Ashmore

But by the end, all was forgiven. Mattila and Hampson gave a ravishing account of the closing scene, both of their voices opening up gloriously.

The producer, Peter Mussbach, seemed to have tried rather too hard to be chic and trendy and has produced something that seems to be contrived and dated already. It seems odd that someone who could get such fine, detailed performances for his cast would mar the production with perverse elements.

Still, this was musically a stunning evening. Whilst, for me, Kiri te Kanawa will remain the true embodiment of Arabella, I took from this performance a wealth of fine memories.

Copyright © 20 June 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK




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