Strauss: Arabella

Janowitz, Weikl, Kollo, Ghazarian; VPO/Solti (Decca DVD 0743255)

24 March 2008 4 stars

ArabellaMaking its first appearance on DVD, this 1977 film of Strauss's Arabella conducted by Georg Solti boasts a cast that, on disc, is perhaps only matched by the same conductor's classic Decca recording from 1958. Gundula Janowitz and Bernd Weikl make an Arabella and Mandryka vocally every bit as glamorous as Lisa Della Casa and George London on the earlier sound only version and, in Otto Schenk's filming, also act well, if not without the occasional awkwardness that's often unavoidable in opera on film.

Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in an account of the score that's maybe a little more mellow than his account from twenty years earlier but remarkably unchanged; still, occasionally, it can sound hard-pushed but also avoids resorting to excessive sentimentality. It's just a shame that the sound quality on the film does not represent much of an improvement on the slightly thin and wiry early stereo sound from the '50s. The few moments of dialogue are also clumsily superimposed. If this film version had received more lavish sonic engineering – I'm assuming it's the film itself rather than compromises made on this DVD reincarnation – then not only would it be even more enjoyable but the sound track alone would jump right into contention as a top recommendation of a work that has not fared particularly well on record.

Schenk's direction is straightforward and literal, not creating an especially colourful or visually exciting picture of 1890s Vienna but also resisting the temptation to create too glamorous a version of the world whose decaying grandeur and moralilty Hofmannsthal satirises in his libretto. The designs for the first and third acts, in the Waldners' house, is suitably understated, you can imagine much of what once adorned it having fallen victim to Waldner's obsessive gambling, ending up in the pawn shop. The Fiakerball of the second act, though, could have done with a bit more glamour and some of the comings and goings of the extras are handled awkwardly. Edita Gruberova as Fiakermilli has a good stab at reconciling the highly stylised theatricality of her role with the film genre and gives a bravura display in the coloratura, but this act's crowd scenes are probably the weaker sections of the film.

Like almost all the operas by Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Arabella can stand or fall by the casting of its title role. Although obviously older than the character she's playing, Gundula Janowitz is near ideal. We can take for granted the gloriously silky voice, negotiating the role's high tessitura with ease but she also paints a convincing portrait on the screen: there's nobility, vulnerability and a little melancholy at her as yet unfulfilled quest for the right man.

That 'Richtige', promising the realisation of an ideal romance for Arabella and financial and social salvation for her family, is embodied extremely convincingly by a young Bernd Weikl. Dark and handsome, he looks every bit the kind of man who might, as he claims, have been out fighting a bear the day he received his letter from Waldner. He captures the honest, uncorrupted decency – contrasted with the decadence of Viennese society – that is essential. If his vocalism isn't always conventional or ideally refined (his piano singing in 'Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein' is unsteady, for example), the voice is virile and beautiful and rarely sounds strained high up, even if he's not helped by the close balance of the sound. The scene with Janowitz in the second act is one of the highlights of the performance, as his series of passionate outbursts break down the inhibitions instilled in Arabella by her overly civilised upbringing.

The cast is completed by René Kollo in his prime as Matteo, negotiating the tortuously high writing of the role with supreme confidence. Sona Ghazarian is a silky-voiced and suitably pretty but androgynous Zdenka; Hans Kraemmer is a wonderfully bullish Waldner; Martha Mödl makes a cameo appearance as a slightly unhinged fortune-teller. Göran Fransson, who looks the part as Graf Elemer, is vocally weak, his top notes tremulous and insecure, but it's a small role so does little to affect one's enjoyment overall. The other smaller roles are well taken.

In short then, this is as good a way to enjoy this opera as any. It might not be the finest work produced by Hofmannsthal and Strauss – although Karen Forsyth's accompanying essay seems so negative in its assessment as almost to discourage even watching the DVD – but with Janowitz's quietly moving central performance and a high quality supporting cast, the gentle nostalgia of the piece is movingly portrayed and we can be swept along to believe in the ideal alliance at its centre.

By Hugo Shirley