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Posts Tagged ‘Beethoven’s Fidelio’

For his only opera, Beethoven took no easy options and gave his musicians – either on stage and in the pit – no easy job. It is a work of extremes, it is a cry for freedom, it must be an overwhelming experience for all involved, the artists and the audience. Of course, for the musicians it is also another day at work. I.e.: although the idea that they would give their all in one performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is very romantic, there are other performances in the run and even other work assignments. This must sound an overstatement, but those who have read Christa Ludwig’s biography know the temptation of giving too much in this of all operas and having to face the consequences later. In any case, almost everybody involved in this evening’s performance in the Staatsoper Unter den Linded need not to fear. This was a job almost entirely done on the safe side. Another day at the office, task completed. One can hardly blame their musicians for his or her own expectation of catharsis.

As my eight of nine readers might have guessed, this means I left the theatre frustrated. Believe it or not, this was my first Fidelio in Germany. It is a bit unfair that my last Fidelio, in the Vienna State Opera, fulfilled all my expectations and the “homecoming” to the Lindenoper after so many years in the Schiller-Theater made me wish for something unforgettable too. If someone has a great share of responsibility in my disappointment this would be Karl-Heinz Steffens. His conducting this evening could appear in the dictionary as the example of the bad meaning of the word kapellmeister. Not only his traffic cop duties were performed with little affection, but considering the high level of false entries his beat must be a bit difficult to follow. There was also a problematic approach to phrasing, as if the idea were to emulate Herbert von Karajan’s “smoothness” , what came across as simply as smudgy. The blunders with the French horns in Leonore’s big aria were just a symbol of everything that was not working properly this evening. Fortunately, the chorus was willing to give more and, when finally allowed to let loose, they showed how this performance should have been. Unfortunately these were the last five minutes of the opera.

It did not help either that the Leonore 2 was preferred to the Fidelio overture. Always when that happens, I can’t help thinking that Beethoven must have given a great deal of thought when he finally decided how this opera should begin. The fact that we had Marzelline aria before the duet with Jacquino, however, does not mean that this was an early version of the opera. Other than two noted differences, the regular final version of Fidelio seemed to have been adopted.

Harry Kupfer’s 2016 production for the Staatsoper actually has a great share of the low level of drama this evening. The director himself explains that it is a mistake to see Fidelio as a work that begins as a Spieloper, develops into a heroic opera until it finally settles as an oratorio, but curiously this is exactly how he stages it. After the overture, we see the chorus and the soloists as musicians in the Musikverein hall. Suddenly, the backdrop falls and they are in a prison. In the first finale, the prisoners shed their prisoner uniform and appear as themselves. The second act first shows Florestan as a tenor with the score of Fidelio. He then chains himself and “becomes” Florestan. The finale ultimo is performed again as a concert performance in the Musikverein, Don Fernando as the conductor and everybody reading from their scores. If you ask me if these directorial choices boost any theatricality, the answer is “no”. It drains Fidelio of its dramatic force, straitjackets the cast and denies Fidelio of its triumphant climax. This is the second time this week I have been denied the “triumph of goodness” and, if directors go on like that, I will have to resort to Walt Disney to find solace from the prevailing idiocracy in this world.

Simone Schneider’s rich, lyric soprano, rock-solid in bottom notes is judiciously used by a singer who knows her voice well and is fully prepared for a difficult task. She confidently sailed through Abscheulicher! without ever putting herself in danger, but this was a performance about the mechanics. Her voice lacks a cutting edge and act II showed her rather well-behaved and small-scaled. At some point, she sounded also a bit tired. In the end, one has to acknowledge her professionalism, but the character envisaged by Beethoven has little to do with what we heard tonight at the theatre. Curiously, Mandy Fredrich, who made a career as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, sounded similarly dispirited as Marzelline, rather unfocused in her high notes, even if she did not seem to find any problem in producing them. In the short but important role of Don Fernando, Arttu Katajan too sounded small-scale and lacking nobility.

Fortunately, the remaining singers in the cast inhabited a whole different universe. I am surprised by Klaus Florian Vogt’s fully committed incursion in the difficult role of Florestan. His was a rather Mozartian approach to the part, albeit one sung in a naturally voluminous voice and fully informed by the text. Even if his singing lacked powerful heroic top notes, this seemed coherent to his almost instrumental approach to the usually unsingable stretta of his aria. Actually, the unheroic quality of his singing scored many points in terms of theatre. This was rather the voice of a prisoner almost starved to death and kept alive by the dream of seeing his beloved wife once more time. This also made more sense in his pairing to Ms. Schneider’s also rather Mozartian Leonore. Moreover, one could bet that what Beethoven might have heard is closer to what we hard tonight than to what Klemperer offers in his recording (namely Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers). Finding Falk Struckmann in firm voice after all those years of heavy use and was a very good surprise. His Pizarro was powerfully sung and he has no problem with sounding really nasty. In that sense, he was extremely well contrasted to René Pape’s utterly likable Rocco. Mr. Pape’s singing was predictably one of this evening’s greatest assets. Last but not least, Florian Hoffmann was a light-toned, vulnerable and congenial Jacquino.

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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.

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For performances at the Musikfest Bremen and the Beethovenfest Bonn, conductor Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie have prepared semi-staged performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio with dialogues replaced by Roccos Erzählung, a text written by literature historian Walter Jens for concerts conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (with Julia Varady, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) in Hohenems in 1986, here spoken by German actor Wolf Kahler. Although the story as seen by Rocco’s point-of-view, with fine imagery and some political content, is interesting in itself, it is far less scenically efficient than the libretto’s own dialogues. Moreover, the fact that scenes were interrupted so that Mr. Kahler could read the text had the unwelcome effect of preventing singers from steadily developing into the theatrical action, here reduced to basic movements, no costumes and no props other than the chairs reserved for the cast. It must be mentioned that, even if there were subtitles for Jens’s text, hearing it spoken in German for foreign audiences has far less impact than for Germans, who are able to enjoy Mr. Kahler’s talents. If one has in mind he did not use a microphone, there is much to praise there in any case.

I don’t have the impression that Maestro Järvi has an extensive experience as an opera conductor, having focused his career rather in symphonic repertoire. The fact that his tempi, accents and interpretative choices were almost invariably counter-intuitive for any singer would confirm my impression. This afternoon, his conducting of Beethoven’s masterpiece was bombastic, unsubtle, unclear, messy in ensembles, problematic for his soloists and not really flattering for his rough-sounding orchestra. It was basically overfast in a very awkward manner and occasionally made slow when things got really tangled (as in Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen). As a result, the excitement was generally built from outside and did not seem an expressive feature but rather a byproduct. Truth be said, thanks also to the very commendable contribution of the chorus of the Tokyo College of Music, an exhilarating closing scene did finally pay off, earning these musicians enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The performances in Germany were supposed to have Emily Magee as Leonore, but she cancelled and was replaced by Cécile Perrin. I assume that these concerts in Yokohama might be her debut in this role. The fact that she was the only singer in the cast with her score (and the absence of any previous performance in Fidelio in her website) seem to confirm this assumption. This American soprano usually appears in jugendlich dramatisch roles, but has been flirting with heavier assignments these days. Although the percussive acuti and low notes of a legitimate dramatic soprano are really not within her possibilities, what she offers is reliable and perfectly acceptable (if not really exciting). Her asset in this role is her ability to spin clean, creamy lyrical phrasing when this is required, to excellent results in the canon quartet, for instance. Still, she needs to mature in the role. Even with her notes in hand, there were some wayward moments, most notably in her difficult aria. The role of Marzelline too had a different singer in Germany, Mojca Erdmann. For the Japanese tour, Christina Landshammer was originally announced, but finally and most felicitously replaced by South African soprano Golda Schultz. Ms. Schultz is a name to keep – she has a truly lovely velvety voice with soaring high notes on top of an irresistibly warm middle register, unfailing musicianship and sense of style and a winning personality. She was an ideal Marzelline and I hope to hear her again – and soon!

This is the first time I was able to listen to Burkhard Fritz in perfect health. When I first saw him,   being indisposed didn’t prevent him from singing quite impressively. I cannot say something similar of the second time. In any case, his performance this afternoon deserves nothing but praise. He sang with good taste and sensitivity, judiciously avoided excessive heroic quality finding the right touch of vulnerability and dealt with the intricacies of the testing part of Florestan without any hint of effort. Julian Prégardien too was very well cast as Jaquino. The role of Pizarro was originally cast in Germany with Evgeny Nikitin, who must have offered a powerful performance, but would be replaced in Japan by Falk Struckmann until the name Tom Fox was finally announced.  At this point in his career, the rust in his singing was entirely predictable. He still manages forceful top notes, but not really much beyond that. He is a clever singer, however, and knew to play his liabilities as characterization.  Dmitri Ivaschenko (Rocco) took some time to warm up, but even then his voice sounded a bit less focused than what I used to hear from him. But that’s comparing him to himself. The tone quality was never less than pleasant and dark and he was stylish and strong in articulation as always. Finally, Detlef Roth’s baritone is a bit on the high side for the role of Don Fernando.

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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.

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In those days when singers were confined in specific repertoires, all trespassing used to be forbidden in recording studios. We all know that James King sang Otello or that Gundula Janowitz sang Desdemona or that Gwyneth Jones was a noted Aida – but they have rarely been invited to sing these roles in studio. I guess Walter Legge was the first guy to break this rule – his wife was inserted in at least two important “Italian” studio recordings, Karajan’s Falstaff and the Turandot with Maria Callas (not to mention all those Verdi Requiems). He also invited Christa Ludwig to sing Adalgisa in Callas’s second Norma. He had Nicolai Gedda singing Rossini (again with Callas) and R. Strauss’s Capriccio (with Scharzkopf). Then we had famous American singers who would sing different repertoires – the Verdian soprano par excellence, Leontyne Price, is Leinsdorf’s Ariadne for Decca, Sherill Milnes did record (again) Leinsdorf’s Salome etc.

It is curious that two of the leading mezzo sopranos of their days happened to be American – Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett – and never made into a German opera recording in studio. In the case of Bumbry, this is particularly bizarre, since she was the favourite pupil of one the most famous German singers in XXth century, which is Lotte Lehmann. It is even stranger the fact that she did record Lieder by Schumann (and maybe Brahms) and also La Forza del Destino sung in German. But not one opera by Strauss or Wagner – and she did sing Salome and Tannhäuser on stage (and also Klytämnestra in Strauss’s Elektra in the end of her career). I reckon she would have been wonderful as Octavian, Ariadne (both as Ariadne or the Composer), Kundry, Ortrud, Fricka etc…

In the case of Shirley Verrett, the story is even sadder. Although she was noted for her performances in French roles (in France too), I might be mistaken – but there is not one studio recording in this repertoire with her . And she was a famous Dalila (as we can see twice on video), Sélika (as seen on video) and Carmen (only available in pirate recordings). There is not one record of her German roles (I’m not counting one tiny valkiry in Stokowski’s Walkürenritt).

Actually, when I say “German roles”, I might be indulging in exaggeration. I only know one German role of hers – which is the title role in Beethoven’s Fidelio. I have always been curious about this performance and thanks to a generous friend I was able to listen to an in-house recording of her performance of April 17th 1982 at the Met. The recorded sound is reallly, I mean REALLY bad, but one can see that Bernard Haitink was in fiery disposition. His conducting there is far more exciting than in his (very good) recording for Philips in Dresden with Jessye Norman. The cast is mostly undistinguished – John Macurdy is a realiable Rocco and Judith Blegen is a charming if microscopic Marzelline. It is difficult to say anything about these singers’ interpretation: the sound does not allow enough tone to their voices and they sound really distant most of the time. But one thing is evident – rarely has any singer dealt with the difficulties in the writing of the part of Leonore as nimbly as Verrett. Her high register is amazingly resilient and forceful. Her top notes are thrilling and dependable. The quartett Er sterbe is particularly successful. I am curious to hear the opinion of someone who actually saw her live in this role. With this in-house recording, it is difficult to say much – but this is tempting enough. In any case, it must be noted that climbing up to soprano Fach was not healthy for both Bumbry and Verrett’s careers in what regard recordings. I cannot recall any official release featuring any of these singers in a 100% soprano role. There is Bumbry’s Venus and Verrett’s Lady Macbeth and Adalgisa, but these roles are bi-Fach. Considering the quality of some people who actually made into studios those days, I guess it is OUR loss.

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