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BEETHOVEN Fidelio (concert performance in German) soloists; singers from the RSAMD; Scottish Chamber Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras, Barbican Hall, 8.10.2005 (CC)



High hopes here, not least for Christine Brewer as Leonore. But for Mackerras, too, a now elderly (octogenarian) statesman. So what went wrong? A summary of failings would point to a Brewer who took her time to warm up, a Florestan (Thomas Moser) whose voice nearly collapsed under the strain of his major aria (opening of Act II) and an orchestra that if I am charitable I'd say was having an off night. Or maybe they are always like this, slack of ensemble and infinitely uninspiring. Bland. And why did we have Leonore No. 3 Overture between the two scenes of the final act? In the theatre surely this is to provide enough time for the scene change, but that was obviously unnecessary here in concert. Mackerras used the Prague version (dating from 1814 performances there, conducted then by Weber) for what its worth. Not much. Although there was a certain power of utterance here, revisiting the trumpet calls so soon after their correct dramatic placement in the opera just does not work.

Brewer is the great hope of Leonores today. Her assumption on the recent Chandos set (CHAN3123) led me to believe this might head towards my concert of the year list. Yet in the event her literal reading of dialogue (eyes glued to her score to find the words) and the fact she only seemed to warm-in at the very end of Act I Scene 1 effectively meant that she was overshadowed by her Marzelline (how often does that happen), here the irrepressible Lisa Milne. Milne has impressed me before (not least as Gilda at ENO) and although her German was fair and no more, her clean delivery (superb slurs) and real affection for her part was winning.

Brewer did wake up (if not totally warm up) for 'Abscheulicher!' reveling in moments of real peace and demonstrating the tremendous reserves of power and emotional weight we know her to possess. But the fact is they only surfaced at salient moments, and the rest of the time it was like she was on autopilot.

Pizarros's entrance was ultra-quick (easy to imagine him skipping onstage – not entirely appropriate for the villain!). In the event it did not matter too much, for Terje Stensvold (if we are to believe his biography, Norway's secret vocal weapon) was hardly an evil monster. His authority tended towards zero and his voice did not want to plunge below a certain register – whenever it did it lost all body. His 'Er sterbe!' in Act II was hardly back evil either, more dark blue (I wouldn't be afraid of him, anyway). Peter Rose was Rocco. His ‘Money Aria’ began almost preternaturally staccato, and Mackerras' point-making and general ignoring of his singer led to overpowering at times. Rose looked, awkward, too, straining obviously to see Mackerras' beat, a most unnerving sight.

Thomas Moser was Florestan. Mackerras' preparation for his cry of 'Gott' could have been impressive, if only the orchestra had played together. Moser gave a stand-and-deliver Florestan, yet if one closed the eyes, the Mandela-like stoicism was actually quite believable. As already mentioned, though, his voice did give out right at the end (difficult to believe it was deliberate, even given the character's dire circumstances). Ironically by this stage Brewer's Leonore had considerably more mettle, while all Moser proved was that he can't act for toffee. Oh, and a staging suggestion. Even though this was a concert performance, surely something (a whistle, whatever) could have been found immediately before Florestan's desperate 'Is that the signal for my death?' Otherwise it sounds as if he's having aural hallucinations.

The duet with Leonore, 'Namenlose Freude' was merely acceptable, no more – the couple left the stage, rather limply holding hands. Timothy Robinson's Jacquino (doubling First Prisoner) was tremulous, underpowered and, to begin with, harsh (had no-one warmed up). Mackerras' generally fast speeds meant that there was an occasional tendency to gabble from the cast (notably Rocco).

Fidelio is one of the greatest operas in the repertoire. Personally I hadn't realized that in a substandard performance its power is diluted more than usual, so it becomes easy to pick holes in the score. This is not, in that sense, indestructible music and here it emerged both battered and crumpled. As I left the Barbican complex, I could hear cheers issuing from the Concert Hall. What were they thinking of?



Colin Clarke




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