Christmas was yesterday, and the ingestion of Gänsebraten and Sekt is usually high this time of the year. For singers who had to appear in Beethoven’s Fidelio the next day, this must have required tremendous willpower. Anyway, one member of the cast – the Leonore, Ricarda Merbeth, did not even make it. Anja Kampe had to be flown in to take the title role. As almost everyone else, the German soprano was not in a good-voice day, but, as much as Leonore, sie hat Mut and has risked her vocal folds (as many singers before her) for the love of Beethoven. Some would say that Ms. Kampe does not have the high notes for the role, but my impression is that the notes are indeed there – the technique to handle them not really. She has a beautiful, warm voice, a sensitive and musicianly way of building her phrases and is always dramatically on, but one could see that she knew beforehand that some passages would simply not work as written and that the make-do solutions are rather part of her performance than accidents in it. As it was, whenever things got high and loud (and they often do), the options were crooning or shouting. She is an intelligent singing actress and would invariably found a plausible theatrical attitude to justify this, except in her big aria, when things really went astray. Because of her generosity as an artist, she had the audience on her side, but it would be sad to see her eventually pay the price of such hazardous use of her voice.
Peter Seiffert seemed to have avoided the effects of Christmas supper and was really keen on preferring heroic to lyrical singing, although the latter usually suits his vocal nature better. In any case, this evening, his voice sounded at once large, focused, flexible and dulcet, even in the trickiest passages. Maybe as a tribute to René Kollo (who appears in this same production on video), he tried the messa di voce in his first note, which, as much as with Kollo, did not work very well. But other than this, he offered a truly satisfying performance.
Tomasz Konieczny, on the other hand, must have had a hell of a Christmas, for his entrance made me worry for him. He, basically, looked very ill: his hands shaking, his breathing very loud and labored, his face flushed, he missed one entry, then the text and his voice seemed to be all over the place. Either he is an excellent actor with a wildly misguided concept of the role or he was a hero to sing the part of Pizarro in that condition. Fortunately, he gradually recovered and, in the second act, peeled the paint off the walls with truly stentorian singing in his confrontation with Mr. and Ms. Florestan. I confess I was surprised to see the name of the more-than-veteran Matti Salminen in the important role of Rocco. Although his voice is still admirably firm and characterful, it now is essentially very rough, with some grey-toned patches in his range. He is a bête-de-scène and has no problem in making this work; however, in an evening where almost every soloist required some adjustment, I only hoped during the first act that I would hear a reliable and unproblematic piece of singing.
Ildiko Raimondi’s soprano is a bit juiceless and intonation has its dodgy moments, but she does not spoil the fun at all. Her Jaquino, Sebastian Kohlhepp, proved to be in far better shape, but his singing lacked variety and imagination. Finally, the role of Don Fernando requires a voice completely different from that of Boaz Daniel.
If this performance proved to be something special, we owe this to the impressive playing of the Vienna State Orchestra under the wide-ranging conducting of Franz Welser-Möst. The State Opera’s General Musical Director was at his most Toscanini-an, pressing forward with ruthless rhythmic precision and extracting excitingly accurate playing from his musicians even in extremely fast tempi. For instance, this was the fastest O welche Lust that I have ever heard, more nervous and ominous than touching and hopeful. All concertati challenged soloists and choristers in their fast pace, but not the orchestra, which could not only cope with the technical demands, but also comment the action with wide tonal variety and produce rather than respond to the different shifts of mood in the score and the libretto. The maestro would make an exception for Pizarro’s scene in the dungeon in act II – there he opted to produce excitement rather from accent and accuracy, what made his soloists more comfortable and allowed him enough leeway to build into a powerful Es schlägt der Rache Stunde. Since the Mahlerian tradition of playing the Leonore no.3 before the closing tableau is still very much respected in Vienna, the audience received a Christmas gift in an orchestral tour de force to make you forget that there are other orchestras in the world. Few conductors would risk to take an opera house orchestra to its limits of dynamic possibilities, articulation and balance as successfully as we heard it today – the level of power, precision and transparence achieved by Mr. Welser-Möst and his musicians was something one could tell his or her grandchildren. Truly uplifting.