Forget resurrection. This year’s Easter festivals on the continent are an orgy of safe choices and conventional repertoire, with not a spring chicken in sight.
While Berlin’s Festwochen opened with Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and Baden-Baden with Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Salzburg’s Easter Festival, now in its second year of notional rebirth with Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle, chose Arabella, Richard Strauss’s final opera with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
Arabella, written for the Staatskapelle and first performed in Dresden, is arguably in need of renewal. Von Hofmannsthal died before he could rework his patchy libretto with the composer, and even Strauss compared it negatively with his other operas. The plot – about a nobleman fallen on hard times auctioning off his headstrong daughter to the highest bidder – is hard to sell to today’s public.
Salzburg does not even try. By casting Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson as the work’s passionate young lovers, the festival has opted for crowd-pleasing names rather than artistic truth. Young director Florentine Klepper never had a chance; even if her concept had been revolutionary, which it was not, she could not have wooed these veterans away from their standard rituals and towards something new or fresh.
Klepper and her team move the action forwards from 1860 to 1910, with a chandelier and the elegant rooms of fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau. If there is a point to this temporal shift, it is not evident. Nor does a break in the back wall of Martina Segna’s sets in the middle of the second act (for a touch of surreal elevator symbolism) in any way relieve the general tedium.
The point ought to be Thielemann’s lush sound, his lavish precision, the burnished warmth of the Staatskapelle under his high romantic direction. But even this goes awry. The Festspielhaus is too big for the piece, and Thielemann, perhaps in a bid to fill it with sound, thrashes the orchestra well beyond the point of refinement. Many entries are rough, and the singers often struggle to be heard.
To struggle would be beneath Fleming’s dignity, so she remains stylishly inaudible for much of the evening, and of course incomprehensible throughout – diction is not her strong point. This is her signature role, and her focus is on Arabella’s self-reflection and capacity for nuance. Along the way she loses vitality and charisma, beautifying herself into blandness. Hampson, never an ideal Mandryka, sounds depressingly past his prime, husbanding his failing resources with a calculated poise quite at odds with his character’s rustic boldness.
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, as Arabella’s reluctantly cross-dressing sister Zdenka, brings much-needed freshness to the evening, with singing that is clear, lyrical and courageous; she is well matched by Daniel Behle’s Matteo, an equally bold account of a dangerous role. Their recklessness pays off in spades. If only the rest of the festival could follow their lead.