In the booklet to his performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio for the Paris National Opera, Sylvain Cambreling explains why he believes that some ideas in early versions of this work (usually referred to as Leonore) are, in his opinion, more effective than the definitive alternatives settled in the composer’s final 1814 version. Naturally, Beethoven’s own ideas of what is more effective are irrelevant compared to Cambreling’s, but let’s not talk about that. The edition performed at the Palais Garnier this evening featured the graceful Leonore I instead of the much loved and highly dramatic Fidelio overture. Also, Marzelline’s aria comes before the duet with Jaquino, which is followed by the trio Ein Mann ist bald genommen. In any case, replacing Beethoven by Beethoven might be debatable, but hardly matter for disappointment. The problem involves the replacement of the original functional if (refreshingly) self-effacing spoken lines by Martin Mosebach’s foolish dialogues which are supposed to connect every loose end in the plot by pseudo-smart explanations full of pocket philosophy and over-the-bar-table psychology.
One could say that these replacements could limit the musical and dramatic strength of Beethoven’s Fidelio, but lightness seemed to be the bottomline here – Cambreling ensured that the house orchestra offered clear, warm sounds in the context of a well-balanced and behaved performance. Although accents were firm and rhythms tended to be forward-moving (with the exception of a whimsical beat for Rocco’s “gold” aria), pride of place seemed to be given to shapeliness and correctness. The quartett Er sterbe, for example, never suggested anything wild or dangerous, but rather a certain orderliness. Accordingly, Johan Simons’s production offers us the pasteurized version of this prison drama – sceneries are aseptically white, inmates are dressed in pastels, Florestan is monitored by surveillance cameras. It takes some time to adjust to this Biedermeier version of Beethoven’s humanist drama in which blood and guts are replaced by the political correctness featured in Marie Claire magazine, but once you do that, it does fit one’s general ideas about classical elegance and balance. If you really don’t get my meaning, do yourself a favour by buying Karl Böhm’s CDs with Gwyneth Jones, James King, Theo Adam and the Staatskapelle Dresden.
Above any discussion about stylistic approach is the paramount quality of the cast gathered here. Angela Denoke has received some harsh criticism on her Leonore in Simon Rattle’s recording for EMI some years ago for excessive detachment and undernourished vocalism. Even if her Fidelio is still rather cool, it does feature the kind of Gundula Janowitz-like shapely sculpted phrasing even in the most hair-raisingly difficult moments that matches to perfection Florestan’s idealized vision of an angelic Leonore. Her voice is at once firm, radiant, pure-toned and surprisingly forceful – I sincerely doubt that there are many other singers around who can sing the role as musicianly as she does these days. Moreover, she looks believably boyish and offers acting of disarming sincerity. It is always difficult to find the right Marzelline when the singer taking the title role has such a beautiful voice – and casting Julia Kleiter is an evidence of good judgment. Not only does she have one of the loveliest lyric soprano voices in our days, but also boasts an engaging and charming stage presence.
Jonas Kaufmann is also a skilled actor. He convincingly portrayed Florestan’s physical debilitation even when this involved singing difficult music in very uncomfortable positions. His opening aria, for example: he risked to attack his initial high g on almost falsetto-like mezza voce only to slowly develop it into a very dark fff lying on the floor with his legs crossed in a truly disturbing manner. In the ensuing aria, he sang with sensitivity and imagination and negotiated its difficult second section with unusual accuracy. At this point, any doubts about his ability to sing heroic repertoire should be dispelled. I have seen Alan Held sing the role of Pizarro many years ago and again in Rattle’s EMI recording, but never better than this evening. His voice has acquired a darker hue but still has the necessary concentration to pierce through the orchestra, especially in high higher register. Ideally, the part requires a heavier and larger voice, but operating close to the limits does not prevent this singer from offering a satisfying and reliable performance. Franz-Josef Selig is again a most sensitive and rich-toned singer – only poor focus on high higher notes stands between him and complete success. Ales Briscein is a most pleasant Jaquino, while Paul Gay is a bit modest in sound and attitude for Don Fernando. Last but not least, although the Paris National Opera chorus still lacks some discipline, the final scene was effectively grand in sound and animated.