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08 May 2014

Amsterdam: Arabella’s New Water in Old Glasses

What a difference a venue and a cast can make!

As a shared production, I confess I had been under-whelmed by this staging of Arabella in another (major) theatre, but it took the Netherlands Opera to make a believer out of me that the concept indeed had something substantial to offer. Herbert Murauer’s white box of a playing space that seemed so limiting before, looked expansive and intriguing on the wide stage in the broad auditorium of Het Muziektheater.

Here it functioned beautifully as a blank page with shifting panels upstage that slipped and slid to reveal selected shallow portions of a hotel room that has seen better days, devoid of most furniture except a straight back chair here and there. Mr. Murauer has accessorized the deglamorized quarters tellingly with a lamp on the floor in search of its table, and improvised black ‘curtains’ covering the windows in a desperate attempt to maintain some privacy from judgmental eyes.

The peek-a-boo panels that had seemed so contrived before, now seemed invaluable in framing the action and emotional content, adding a layer to sub-text, and actually helping to define character relationships. Every movement of the panels caused anticipation akin to opening another box on an Advent calendar. Behind this backline of panels , the hotel room did some linear slipping and sliding of its own, at once unsettling and fascniating. At one time the living room was center stage, the next it was far to the right, having sidled to draw Arabella’s denuded bedroom into view. I have to say, that whatever my first impression may have been, this use of the dis-orienting reveals proved perfectly in service to the drama, even enhancing the slender plot.

Act II’s party scene in the ante-chamber of a chandeliered ballroom was elegant and practical, its central beige marble staircase and banquettes of sofas allowing for varied levels and meaningful compositions. The segue that followed ‘Zdenko’ and Matteo into the men’s room was funny and inventive. The permanent white box framing the extreme front of the stage became a sort of no man's land of collective consciousness wherein principals not only came to grips with their own introspections, but also interacted with other characters without distraction.

In a brilliant decision, the entire final conflict and confrontation scene was enclosed in that box, with characters almost literally bouncing off the boundaries liked caged animals. When the up left panel opened a crack to uncover a cramped group of eavesdroppers, it was as though a veil had been lifted on the characters’ psyches, suggesting a disturbing breach of privacy and decorum.

Christof Loy has, on this occasion, found a consistency of approach, created telling stage pictures, nurtured detailed character interaction, and invested the whole affair with considerable wit and imagination. I will not soon forget Zdenka revealing herself as a female by tearing off her shirt and pulling down her pants to reveal the black dress she wore for the seduction, then hobbling comically about the stage with her pants around her ankles. Funny yes, but also truthful. Even the stretches of solos directed through the fourth wall seemed to have found dramatic purpose, and emotional states were always well-communicated.

Converse to injecting fresh humor into certain moments, Mr. Loy managed to bring darkness to the usual flippant antics of the ball scene, with a doped up Fiakerlmilli being abused, Matteo attempting a suicide with a pistol, and wasted young revelers tumbling and rolling about with waning motor function. In another masterful (and not disruptive) invention, the director injected a loooooooooong silent pause in Act III just before Zdenka confesses all, a wrenching moment that held us rapt as the girl grappled with the truth in anguish. Very moving. Perhaps my change of heart lies largely with the capabilities of a cast that could hardly be bettered.

In the title role, the radiant Jacquelyn Wagner’s flawless account announced to the world that she owns the part for the foreseeable future. Ms. Wagner is an ideal Arabella, with a gleaming, warm soprano that has body and sheen in every register and at every volume. She is a lithe and lovely actress, effortlessly elegant, yet capable of sass and sparkle for stage bits like her contentious relationship with her fur coat, or her chucking the goddam roses on the floor in frustration. Best of all, while she is highly adept at thrillingly expansive vocalism, she can also effectively handle the required smaller moments of self-doubt, all the while flat out “singing” them with body and point. Not for Jackie the mewing, cooing, sotto voce posturings and affectations of other “interpreters.” She just sings the damn’ thing! Gloriously. You heard it from me: Jacquelyn Wagner is the must-have Arabella of the moment. The Dutch public embraced her success with a “fortississimo” ovation.

No less remarkable was the (let me just say it) best-sung Mandryka I will ever likely hear. James Rutherford has a singularly beautiful instrument, manly, buzzing, robust, warm, substantial, and well, Terfel-ish. Mr. Rutherford has been assuming Wagner roles in smaller, acoustically friendly houses (to include Bayreuth) but I have no doubt he has the fire-power and stamina to conquer any stage he visits. His rolling bass-baritone is hooked up from top to bottom, and James also really sings the part, quite a departure from the barking, hectoring prats that we too often encounter. He has an easy “bear” presence on stage, and made a crackerjack of an entrance when he strode on stage in an ostentations rustic coat made from fur of an animal(s) he might have killed himself. (The apt costumes are also by Mr. Murauer). When Mandryka’s grievous error is revealed, Mr. Rutherford just crumbles, and his appeal is such that we grieve for his heart-wrenching humiliation. If it got any better than this my heart couldn’t take it. Another star on the rise.

Nor to imply that those two stars over-shadowed Zdenka, because Agneta Eichenholz simply knocked it out of the park. Ms. Eichenholz sports a full-bodied lyric soprano with plenty of sparkle and thrust, deployed with lots of heart and superb artistry. The character arguably takes the biggest journey over the evening, and Agneta conveyed it beautifully, all the while singing with secure legato and plenty of fire. She also paired gorgeously with Arabella, both sopranos able to imbue their duets with a haunting, inviting quality that had seamless appeal.

Susanne Elmark’s slender, fluty soprano was absolutely rock-soild, projected cleanly, and was possessed of meticulous coloratura. The musical excesses and extremes of the role held absolutely no terror for her as evidenced by her assured musical performance. She was all the more remarkable for executing all the fireworks while impersonating a drug-impaired, loose-limbed good time girl, who gets more than she bargained for.

Will Hartmann’s Matteo provided many happy moments when his compact tenor soared over the orchestras, but during a couple of quieter patches his tone experienced a mite of unsteadiness, making me wonder if there was some ‘heft’ being imposed on a more lyrical instrument which made for difficulties when he changed gears. Still, Mr. Hartmann was dramatically involved and affecting. Marcel Reijans as Count Elemer, showed off a light but shining tenor, and displayed a bright, engagingly boyish timbre. Rogert Smeets’s Dominic was typically secure and reliably solid; while the handsome Thomas Dear succeeded as Lamoral, entertaining us with a dark and pleasing bass, used with pointed gravity.

Local girl Charlotte Margiono can do no wrong, and indeed, she proved to be luxury casting as Adelaide. The accomplished soprano still has a sumptuous roundness, plenty of heft, and admirable clarity. Ms. Margiono savored her turn in the spotlight, especially during the naughtier bits where she proved there is fire in the old girl yet. She (and we) had a blast. Alfred Reiter proved to be a perfect foil as the willful Count Waldner His big, biting voice may be more imposing than appealing at this point in his career, but it served the character well. While her name is almost longer than the role, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen knocked our socks off at the top of the night, with a socko turn as the Fortune Teller that had real fire, commitment, a blazing chest voice and a searing top. She took the stage, seized the moment, and boy, did she get our attention!

Under Marc Albrecht’s baton, the Netherlands Philharmonic was dazzling, on fire with a virtuosic intent that swept every element of the production along with it. Maestro Albrecht led a propulsive, richly detailed reading that seemed inevitable yet carefully controlled. The winds were especially vivid, the brass statements verged on the profound, and the sumptuous strings could provide a lush bed of sound second to none. From ‘tutti’ ensemble playing to lean, exposed accompaniment, nothing eluded this inspired groups of players. Their and Mr. Albrecht’s triumph earned the day’s most vociferous acclaim.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Count Waldner: Alfred Reiter; Adelaide: Charlotte Margiono; Arabella: Jacquelyn Wagner; Zdenka: Agneta Eichenholz; Mandryka: James Rutherford; Matteo: Will Hartmann; Count Elemer: Marcel Reijans; Count Dominic: Rogert Smeets; Count Lamoral: Thomas Dear; Fiakermilli: Susanne Elmark; Fortune Teller: Ursula Hesse von den Steinen; Welko: Richard Meijer; Servant: Richard Prada; Conductor: Marc Albrecht; Director: Christof Loy; Set and Costume Design: Herbert Murauer; Lighting Design: Reinhard Traub; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra

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