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Mojca Erdmann as Marzelline and Florian Hoffmann as Jaquino [Photo courtesy of Ufficio Stampa Teatro alla Scala]
22 Dec 2014

Fidelio opens new season at La Scala

Daniel Barenboim makes a triumphant departure as direttore musicale del Teatro alla Scala with Beethoven’s operatic masterpiece.

Fidelio opens new season at La Scala

A review by Jonathan Sutherland

Above: Mojca Erdmann as Marzelline and Florian Hoffmann as Jaquino

Photos courtesy of Ufficio Stampa Teatro alla Scala

 

It would be hard to imagine a musician today who is more politically active than Daniel Barenboim. As just one example, the success he has achieved since 1999 with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (comprising young Israeli, Palestinian and Arab musicians) is living proof that Art can prevail when politicians continuously fail. That said, it is hardly surprising that Maestro Barenboim made his farewell as Musical Director of La Scala with Beethoven’s only opera, which like the last movement of the 9th Symphony, extols the eternal values of brotherhood, peace, tolerance and freedom.

Barenboim’s personal connection to this opera is almost palpable and as Musical Director, he must have approved the choice of English director Deborah Warner to follow in the footsteps of Otto Schenk, Giorgio Strehler and Werner Herzog in bringing Fidelio to the Scala stage. The contemporary and perhaps deliberately location-neutral stage setting by Chloe Obolensky (a large, drab, cement-columned, ghetto-esque courtyard — curiously without any visible cells) encouraged the universal themes of the dramaturgy to resonate with a 21st century audience almost inured to brutality and injustice. Certainly Madame Warner brought out consistently fine acting from all protagonists, but as in many modern adaptations, there were some serious inconsistencies between text and direction. When Leonore asks Rocco to let the prisoners out for some fresh air because the weather is so wonderful (Heute ist das Wetter so schön) the semi-subterranean West Side Story-ish cement space was still so gloomy there was hardly any light at all. Gott, welch Dunkel hier indeed. Much more difficult to understand was the final scene when the prisoners were freed as the result of a massive break-in rescue mission led by rather motley, hard-hatted urban guerrillas and not as Rocco states, due to a general pardon by the King. ( Der Minister hat eine Liste aller Gefangenen…alle sollen ihm vorgeführt werden.) To fit her crypto-Che Guevara liberation concept, Madame Warner cut from the dialogue Rocco’s specific instruction to Jacquino to free the prisoners (öffnet die oberen Gefängnisse! ) which was a bit naughty. If regal clemency was good enough for Beethoven, Sonnleithner & Treitschke, why not for Warner? Similarly, after Don Fernando praises the virtues of liberty, love and brotherhood ( Tyrannenstrenge sei mir fern. Es sucht der Bruder seine Bruder und kann er helfen, hilft er gern) instead of Don Pizzaro being led off to an uncertain fate, a very loud gun shot is heard. Summary execution is hardly in the spirit of brotherly compassion. Finally, when all are extolling the praises of Leonore’s extraordinary devotion and courage (Stimm in unsern Jubel ein! Nie wird es zu hoch besungen, Retterinn des Gatten sein !) Madame Warner has Marzelline sulking prominently at the front of the stage then engaging in some superfluous business with Jacquino before giving him a kiss and running off. The domestic trivialities and petty adolescent infatuations of Act 1 have been completely subsumed in Act II by issues of momentous universal truth and importance. It is no time to worry about the selfish disappointments of a miffed teenager. This part of the direction was both irritating, distracting and absolutely unnecessary. Furthermore, the general confusion and chaos of the final staging marred what was otherwise exemplary singing by the chorus.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Florestan) Peter Mattei (Don Fernando) Kwangchul Youn (Rocco) Act II Finale.pngKlaus Florian Vogt as Florestan, Peter Mattei as Don Fernando and Kwangchul Youn as Rocco

As mentioned, the acting by all singers was outstanding and even more impressive in close-up focus on the subsequent RAI broadcast. Florian Hoffmann as Jacquino was a very credible frustrated teenager in jeans, hoodie and white T-shirt which read ‘WOW!’ His appealing light tenor was slightly overpowered by the orchestra in the opening duet with Marzelline and following ensembles, but on the whole this was a very convincing performance. As the object of his unrequited affection, the Marzelline of Mojca Erdmann was very well acted and sung. A highly attractive stage appearance and agreeable vocal colour made Jacquino’s ardour entirely understandable. Although the voice seemed to spread occasionally when forte in the upper register, her Act I aria ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’ was charmingly sung and her cantilena in the sublime ‘ Mir ist so wunderbar’ quartet was extremely well balanced with the other singers. Falk Struckmann has been snarling Don Pizzaro for quite a long time but apart from a rather silly and spivvy Mafioso-style suit, his interpretation seemed fresh and suitably fiendish. His astonishment at finding out that Fidelio was actually a woman (sein Weib?) in the great confrontation scene in Act II was utterly convincing. The Don Fernando of Peter Mattei was mellifluously sung as ever, although his appearance was entirely without gravitas and he looked more like a smug property developer bringing news of a successful rental assistance plan to under-privileged tenants than a compassionate Minister of State rejoicing in the honour of freeing political prisoners. As Rocco, the Korean bass Kwangchul Youn enjoyed a big success with the audience. Certainly an Asian physiognomy would have been somewhat unlikely as a State gaoler in 18th century Spain, but in this location-ambiguous production, it didn’t jar at all. Possessing a very appealing warm baritone timbre and singing (and speaking) with perfect German diction, this was a performance full of personality, humour, subtlety and musical insight which fully deserved the accolades he received from the notoriously picky Scala pubblico. Florestan was sung by Klaus Florian Vogt. Whilst not having the meaty macho tenor klang of Jon Vickers or James King, this Florestan’s more lyric timbre worked extremely well and projected effortlessly over the orchestra from the opening impassioned G natural on ‘Gott’, through themerciless tessitura of theO namenlose Freude duet to the concluding Wer ein solches Weib. The luke-warm response he received during the curtain-calls was difficult to fathom. The standout performance was unquestionably that of Anja Kampe as Leonore. Like Falk Struckmann, Madame Kampe is no stranger to her role, but managed to infuse the part with such spontaneous emotion and total commitment, it was an absolute triumph. Combining the intelligence and dramatic insight of Hildegard Behrens with the vocal technical assurance of Birgit Nilsson, this was in all respects an extremely fine interpretation. Despite a slightly shaky exposed top Bb on Tödt’ erst sein Weib! there were wonderfully powerful low C# chest notes (wie Meereswogen) in the Abscheulicher! recitative, beautiful dulcet piano word-colouring on Farbenbogen, a vibrato-free perfectly pitched top B natural on erreichen and impressive accuracy and clarity during the fioratura and leaps in der treue Gattenliebe. Bravissima Anja!

Florian Hoffmann (Jacquino), Mojca Erdmann (Marzelline), Anja Kampe (Leonore), Klaus Florian Vogt (Florestan), Peter Mattei (Don Fernando) Act II Finale.pngFlorian Hoffmann as Jacquino, Mojca Erdmann as Marzelline, Anja Kampe as Leonore, Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan and Peter Mattei as Don Fernando

The greatest ovation of the evening however was for conductor Daniel Barenboim and the La Scala orchestra. The maestro opted for the less familiar but longer and more symphonic Leonore Overture No. 2 in C Major to start the performance over the usual E Major alternative. This meant cutting the even more dramatic Leonore Overture No. 3, usually included by conductors such as von Karajan and Bernstein and played in most German houses during the scene change just before the Act II finale. Barenboim’s conducting was so full of nuance, unforced rubati and meticulous attention to the composer’s markings it is difficult to single out specific sections of the partitura for particular praise. Every crescendo and diminuendo, from the strings and winds in the sixth measure of the overture to each sfp, sf and marcato in the tremendous conclusion of Retterin des Gattin sein were played with flawless precision and clarity. This was not just a reading of rhythmic and dynamic exactitude but of gorgeous orchestral colouring as well — the opening cello passage to Mir ist so wunderbar and the soaring oboe solo in Leonore’s Welch ein Augenblick being just two examples. The performance was a worthy Abschiedsgeschenk from a maestro who has not always enjoyed the approbation of the mercurial Milanese, some of whom still squawk about the Simon Boccanegra fiasco in 2010. Whether the same fondness will be felt for Deborah Warner’s production remains to be seen.

The audience at this, the fourth performance, was not quite as enthusiastic as at the premiere and there were no ovations after the overture or arias. Perhaps they confused Fidelio with Parsifal. Local press reported the applause at the opening night curtain went for 15 minutes. One can imagine that having paid over US$3,000 a ticket, the chic prima rappresentazione crowd was determined to have a good time.

Jonathan Sutherland


Cast and production information:

Fernando: Peter Mattei, Don Pizzaro: Falk Struckmann, Florestan: Klaus Florian Vogt, Leonore: Anja Kampe, Rocco: Kwangchul Youn, Marzelline: Mojca Erdmann, Jacquino: Florian Hoffmann, Erster Gefangener: Oreste Cosimo, Zweiter Gefangener: Devis Longo. Conductor: Daniel Barenboim, Director: Deborah Warner, Set and Costume Design: Chloe Obolensky, Chorus Master: Bruno Casoni Don. Teatro alla Scala Milano 16th December 2014.

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