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Fidelio at the Proms

Fidelio is not just any opera. But then, Beethoven is not just any composer. His only opera — unless one counts Leonore as a work in itself — confounds bureaucratic expectations.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio

Leonore: Waltraud Meier; Florestan: Simon O”Neill; Don Pizarro: Gred Grochowski; Rocco: Sir John Tomlinson; Marzelline: Adriana Kučerová; Jacquino: Stephan Rügamer; Don Fernando: Viktor Rud; First Prisoner: Andrew Murgatroyd; Second Prisoner: Edward Price; BBC Singers, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir (chorus master: Tim Murray). West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), concert performance at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 August 2009.


The unimaginative and the plain uncomprehending are led to decry it and sometimes, quite staggeringly, to account it a dramatic failure. Even Wagner, who should have known better, could be dismissive, for instance telling Cosima that a German theatre would be better off opening with Weber’s Euryanthe — admittedly, a wonderful work, but certainly a problematical one — “rather than with Fidelio, which is much more conventional and cold.” Conventional? Hardly, given the boldness of substituting for the operatic expectations of conventional “characterisation” the instantiation of an unutterably noble idea, “freedom”, itself liberated from the confines of bourgeois expectations. Wagner either could not see, or did not want to see — the latter, I suspect, more likely — that the “rescue opera” was here both transcended and granted its enduring memorial. Cold? This work veritably blazes with heat, and it certainly did on this occasion, “occasion” being truly the operative word. Still worse, we read Cosima a few years later record, again contrasting the work with Richard’s beloved Euryanthe: “Then we start discussing Fidelio, which R. describes as unworthy of the composer of the symphonies, in spite of splendid individual passages.” Suffice it to say, however, that there were here many “splendid individual passages,” yet Fidelio was found not only to be worthy of the composer, but to speak directly of and to that all-too-real modern-day catastrophe to which the very existence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra bears witness.

So much for what one might call the meta-performance, but what of the performance itself? Daniel Barenboim has rightly chided those who speak only of the context to this orchestra and not of its musical accomplishments. One cannot and should not forget the former, but the greatness of the enterprise shows in the extraordinary artistic results; disentangling the two is a fool’s game, and never more so than in a work such as this. I am delighted therefore to report that the expectations built up from the previous night’s two Proms (see here and here) were more than fulfilled. Indeed, the orchestral playing had a greater edge than it had during the first half of the first of those concerts. The strings once again demonstrated a depth that would be the envy of many a professional orchestra — at least it would, were the absurd authenticist fashion not to decry such tone. Occasionally the woodwind might have proved fallible, but so what? One does not expect Klemperer’s Philharmonia, astonishing in a different way. This work is about humanity, warts and all: just, in fact, what Beethoven is about. There were in any case ample compensations in the Harmoniemusik blend. The timpanist, a star from the previous night, once again shone brightly. The brass was often magnificent, nowhere more so than in those treacherous horn parts in Leonore’s first-act aria. They were not outshone by Waltraud Meier, which is saying something. And then, of course, there was that trumpet call. The thoughts and associations that rushed through one’s mind at that point were myriad, but I can certainly report that it brought tears to my eyes.

Barenboim’s direction was vigorous, unfailingly engaged, attentive to singers and orchestra, without ever letting concerns for the possible detract from the necessity of the utopian. Some of the overture — unwisely, I thought, Leonore III — was impetuous rather than climactic in a Furtwänglerian sense. (The performance these musicians gave of the overture “as itself” in Salzburg two years ago was manifestly superior.) But his remained a signal achievement, not least in terms of orchestral training, discipline, and of course inspiration. The other cavil I should register is with the version of the score employed. Messing about with Fidelio seems to be all the rage at the moment. The Paris Opéra recently commissioned new dialogue and re-ordered the opening sequence, beginning moreover with Leonore I. Barenboim did something similar, in eschewing almost all of the dialogue — is it really that bad? — and putting Marzelline’s aria before her duet with Jaquino (without, moreover, the tonal justification for this put forward by Sylvain Cambreling in Paris). But then, I realise that I was speaking above about confounding of expectations, so perhaps I am just lacking in imagination myself. There was, in any case, a reason for replacement of the dialogue, since it was replaced by Edward Said’s English narration for Leonore. On this of all occasions, to do so was quite understandable and it certainly provides a genuinely interesting and in some respects disquieting perspective upon the work. Hearing Leonore recount what had taken place from a chronological distance, and with clear implications that her hopes had since been dashed or at least significantly tempered, warns us against any move towards easy non-solutions. Don Fernando could never have put everything right.

Waltraud Meier, mostly recorded but also partly live, presented the narration vividly, in delightfully accented English. However, it was her vocal-dramatic performance that stole the show. She is of course a true stage animal; this shone through in her facial expressions, her gestures, as well as her voice. Yet, even though this was a concert performance, her performance was certainly not out of place. She actually brought us into the most important theatre of all, that of the imagination. And her account of “Abscheulicher! ... Komm, Hoffnung” was simply spellbinding. Simon O”Neill was an excellent Florestan. He could not efface memories of Jonas Kaufmann in that Paris performance last December, but to have hoped for that would have been entirely unreasonable. O”Neill proved himself fully capable of the testing demands of this cruel role and even brought the odd hint, if only a hint, of Jon Vickers to his timbre and projection. Gerd Grochowski was a late replacement for Peter Mattei as Pizarro. I have recently heard him both in Berlin and London as Telramund, and this performance was rather similar, evincing commendable attention to musical and verbal text, but remaining underpowered. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by the presence of Sir John Tomlinson as Wotan, sorry, Rocco. Tomlinson’s voice might be showing its age on occasion, but this is as nothing compared to the dramatic truth and commitment he shows. It was, however, somewhat unfortunate that Rocco should from the outset be so much more powerful a presence than Pizarro. Evil might or might not be banal, but we need to believe in the very real power this wicked man wields. The other parts were decently taken, Adriana Kučerová showing to good effect a beautiful voice, of which I should be more than happy to hear more. And it would be unforgivable not to mention the truly outstanding singing from the combined forces of the BBC Singers and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. Every note, every word, was audible, but just as immediate was the dramatic effect, whether of imprisonment, of hope, or of jubilation. The legendary Wilhelm Pitz’s Philharmonia Chorus for Klemperer is the gold standard here, but these musicians, if not so great in number — or at least that is how it sounds — have little to fear from such a comparison.

Wagner was doubtless right to prefer the Ninth Symphony for the laying of the foundation stone at Bayreuth. Yet the Ring, the sometime artwork of the future, is not the only nineteenth-century work that speaks immediately to our present condition. Fidelio does too (which is not, of course, to say that many other works do not). And so, still more so, does a performance of Fidelio such as this. Barenboim seems to me both right and wrong to say that when this orchestra comes together, politics disappear, since everyone must concentrate exclusively upon the music. For that coming together in the service of something far greater is unavoidably political. It shames those who create division and worse; it holds up an alternative. Such, after all, was the original intention of Barenboim and Said. To the orchestra, mere congratulations upon a tenth anniversary few, least of all its founders, could ever have anticipated, seem pitifully inadequate. And to Blair, Bush, Olmert, Ahmedinejad, Mugabe, Putin, et al., one wants, indeed needs, to say once again, with Horace, “Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur” (“Change but the name, and the tale is told of you”). Even if we cannot quite bring ourselves to believe that present-day tyrants and war criminals will be brought to justice, we must hope — and hope that at least some of their victims will be rescued. Beethoven and these inspirational young musicians help us do that. “Komm, Hoffnung...”

Mark Berry

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