“Love at First Sight Can Happen at Any Age”

Arabella at the Salzburg Easter Festival | Salzburg Easter Festival

It was in early 2007 that Hampson dropped Mandryka from his repertoire. He had been due to sing the role opposite Renée Fleming’s Arabella in Zurich in summer 2007. “I was as sick as a dog, so she had to do it without me. We’ve sung chunks of Act 2 in concert before, but nothing more, and as we’re such old friends I’m looking forward now to finally doing the opera with her.” Hampson’s previous Arabellas were Karita Mattila in Paris in 2002 (role debuts for them both in the Peter Mussbach production that travelled to Covent Garden and was revived again at the Châtelet) and Adrianne Pieczonka in Vienna in winter 2006-7, directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. “The production in Vienna was really quite wonderful, but around this time I was questioning a lot and felt the part wasn’t doing me any good – or me the part. It was a bad patch and I had a lot of stuff to deal with. Life goes through phases, and this rocky patch forced me to start re-analysing my repertoire.”

“One of the things I realized is what a big sing Mandryka really is. It’s typical of Strauss and his brand of Heldenbariton. Which means that, although it fits a lyric voice like mine, he’s always got Hans Hotter at the back of this mind. You really have to be careful. So when I started re-analysing Mandryka, I thought, ‘No, you’re not a Heldenbariton’. I’m never going to sing Wotan. Well, maybe in Rheingold some day, but only in Rheingold. I realized that as Germanophile as I am, and as much as I love the repertoire, there is only a handful of these roles in which I feel comfortable.

“That thought of not singing Mandryka made me very sad, because I adore singing the part, especially with an incandescent Arabella – Act 2 is great theatre, great singing. I have now revisited this whole Strauss issue with Christian Thielemann personally, and no longer hesitate for a second about taking Mandryka back. After all, there are not that many Strauss roles for the baritone, so I really want to sing this one. I’ve been asked about Die Frau ohne Schatten, and maybe one day I will do this glorious work, but in the meantime I’ve sung a lot of Strauss songs and I think I have found a new level, dimension and maturity for his music.”

The issue of maturity is one that is bound to be raised here when two such established stars as Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming lead the cast, but the baritone is quick to point out that, indeed, Mandryka is not a part for a young singer. “When I first sang the part, I can remember Manuel Brug saying my Mandryka was a bit too lithe and dashing, and that Mandryka needs to have a bit more life’s setbacks under his belt. Mandryka’s already a widower, and it’s not really about young love – or old love. Love at first sight can happen at any age. Arabella is, of course, inexperienced, but she’s a slightly overripe ingénue, ready to have her party, if only the family could afford it. There are so many wonderful layers of the bourgeois in the piece. It’s a codified commentary on the structure of the society itself. And I find that interesting.”

Arabella is the last of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaborations, a fact which is famously and poignantly reflected in the work itself. Only Act 1 sets the final version of the libretto as Hofmannsthal wanted it. Out of respect for Hofmannsthal, who suffered a fatal stroke shortly after the suicide of his elder son Franz, Strauss set the drafts for Acts 2 and 3.

“One could call it a flawed masterpiece, and the greatest moments of the opera were mostly conceived while Hofmannsthal was still alive. But the work certainly has those profound and important moments, beautiful in what they say about life. We can all criticize the third act, but even the more incomprehensible parts actually say something – about people’s lives and the conventions that are destroyed. At that point when everyone’s endured a long night, when the goulash hasn’t worked, the tempers are high, everyone’s infuriated and the money has gone, when even the once chance of salvation – the marriage – seems to be lost and Arabella’s heart is broken – out of all of this comes that miraculous moment of her little aria about the glass of water, which according to custom symbolizes betrothal. One could sneer, but I get goose bumps just talking about.”

This is one of those moments – like the Presentation of the Rose in Der Rosenkavalier – that seem to fix everything. “As we say today, you just have to ‘go there’. I accept it all, and completely buy into it. Mandryka’s little aria before that, when he beats himself up, is difficult to learn, but that’s the point, isn’t it? He’s cursing himself: ‘I should know better than to have screwed everything up, I shouldn’t drink, I shouldn’t lose my temper. Why do I do this? Maybe it means I love her?’ There’s a sort of fairy-tale veil over the whole thing, which I think is intentional on Hofmannsthal’s part.”

Though there is nothing obviously political about Arabella, Mandryka’s background as a Croatian landowner cannot be insignificant in a work premiered in 1933. “Whether or not you interpret it as a piece about the need for the Austrians and Slavs to embrace each other, it certainly tells us something interesting about the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire was always characterized by tensions between the city and the country, between the ‘civilized’ sophisticates and the rural folk. This was reflected at the turn of the century by the very popular writer Peter Rosegger, one the great authors, though he was never recognized on an intellectual level. And these tensions were everywhere, between the Outer Ring and the countryside around Vienna, or the Tirol versus Lower Austria. By these measurements, Croatia was almost another planet, yet Mandryka is an extremely wealthy guy, who gets very boastful in his first scene about having 3,000 people working for him and being able to take care of a woman. This piece gets us close to the heart of the Austrian psyche, including its dark sides.”

Now that Thomas Hampson is returning to Mandryka, what past experience of the role will he be carrying with him? Is the Act 1 narration the toughest challenge?

“The difficulty for Mandryka is that there are two or three places where you can derail yourself vocally. In the first act, the challenge is in ‘coming right out of the box’, because you’re not on stage for five minutes when you’re already singing everything from a high F and G to a low F sharp. It’s a big narration, but with gorgeous Straussian lines. You need to be warmed up and an experienced singer to come out and really hit that narration. The danger is that it’s long, and in all the boastful stuff you start pumping up your chest like a rooster, by the second act you’ll be tired. The second act starts very lyrically.

“What I would warn anybody approaching this role is to get it in the voice first. When he goes nuts, all angry and jealous in the middle of the second act, the music gets almost atonal. The temptation is to think that pitch is not important and to start bellowing. You really can unravel yourself vocally. Over the years I’ve learnt not to sing this sort thing too near the edge and to have it in my sung voice first. Lyric voices are always going to be in more danger here ? of succumbing to the lyric bark, as it were.”

How does the baritone feel his voice has changed since he last sang the role? “I had some health issues that I had underestimated – even digestion problems can have an effect on singing. Although I hadn’t really been off the rails or in danger, about five years ago I started to get myself back in order, and right now in this phase of my life I seem to have a pretty stable tessitura – I know that low A to high G is just going to work. I’ve got more confidence in the middle-lower part of my voice, and more stability at the top, although this was never really a problem. The good news for me is that I feel like I’m starting to have more ability to use my voice to express the music. Voices should be individual. I’ve never been preoccupied with ‘The Baritone Voice’, still less ‘The Verdi Baritone’.”

Is it now truly “The Hampson Voice”? “I think so, though it should always be Hampson singing this or that character. If I sing Mandryka I don’t want you to hear Amfortas. If I sing Amfortas I don’t want you to hear Germont. I’ve always been like that. If I sing Wolf you shouldn’t hear Cole Porter – and vice versa would be deadly!”

The interview took place in July 2013.