Richard Strauss’ final opera can sometimes seem wordy and long-winded, but in a performance such as this it is anything but boring.
This luxury cast is just about as perfect as any you are likely to hear, all the singers giving due attention to the words. The Countess Madeleine was always one of Schwarzkopf’s best roles, and she steers a perfect course between sophistication and elegance, between playfulness and tender affection. It is one of her greatest achievements for the gramophone, her radiant singing of the gorgeous closing scene a perfect rounding up of the whole opera. If the opera asks the question, “which should come first, words or music,” there is no doubt which side Strauss himself comes down on. The male voices – Gedda as the dreaming composer Flamand, Fischer-Dieskau as the more impulsive poet Olivier, Wächter as the flirtatious Count, and, last but not least, Hotter as the harassed theatre director La Roche are all wonderfully characterised. Ludwig is a superb Clairon and we even have the young Moffo as the Italian Singer. Sawallisch is a marvellously experienced Strauss conductor and presides over a recording that has become a classic of the gramophone.
The recording was apparently planned in stereo, but technical problems meant it ended up being recorded in mono, which no doubt pleased Walter Legge, as he mistrusted stereo. Nonetheless it is wonderfully well balanced with the voices as they should be, especially in a conversational piece like this, firmly in the foreground.
Arabella is one of Strauss’s most performed operas and there are quite a few complete recordings available, the most famous probably being the Decca set with Lisa Della Casa, who, for many years, was renowned for her portrayal of the leading role.
The main problem with that studio recording, though, is Solti’s hard driven, perfunctory conducting. I think I read somewhere it was his first complete opera recording for Decca, and even his greatest fans admit that he sounds as if he had little sympathy for his task, whereas Sawallisch’s conducting on this set is one of its principal glories, as is the wonderfully warm digital sound.
There are other reasons to treasure the performance here however, not least the performances of Julia Varady as Arabella and Helen Donath as Zdenka. Varady’s husband, Fischer-Dieskau was in his mid 50s at the time of the recording, and it has to be admitted that he does sound a bit over the hill at times, with an occasional tendency to bark. Nonetheless he makes a sympathetic Mandryka, without exactly eclipsing memories of Josef Metternich, who sings Mandryka on a superb excerpts disc with Schwarzkopf as Arabella, which I reviewed as part of the Schwarzkopf Recital box in May last year (what a shame they didn’t record the full opera).
The opera still has its problems, it seems to me. Invariably Zdenka emerges as the more sympathetic character, as she does here, despite Varady’s gorgeous, creamy Arabella. I remember that my first encounter with the opera was the film with Janowitz as Arabella, and my sympathies were all with Matteo! The Fiakermilli music always seems pointless and empty to me too, and there are quite a few places where my attention wanders. Maybe Schwarzkopf was right just to record excerpts.
Still, if you enjoy the opera, this is a very fine recording.