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Beethoven, Leonore: Soloists; Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group/Howard Williams, QEH, 26.11.2005 (CC)



First performed at Vienna's Theater an der Wien on November 20th, 1805, the present concert performance neatly marked the two hundredth anniversary of the opera that was to become Fidelio. Leonore is almost a different piece, so widespread are the differences (and with Mackerras' Barbican Fidelio still ringing in the ears, comparison was easy). Three acts as opposed to two, for a start...

Properly, it was Leonore 2 Overture that opened the evening. Easy to hear why the shorter Fidelio Overture was the composer's final choice – having the whole drama enacted instrumentally does rather change the slant of the opening scene, even if it does begin with Marzelline's aria 'O wär ich schon mit dir vereint' (rather than the more overtly buffo Marzelline/Jacquino duet, which comes second). The Overture was well rather than outstandingly performed – this is a good amateur orchestra with some excellent soloists (clarinet, for example). But it was nice to hear the silences between the tutti block chords actually counted out (most conductors seem to rush and come in early).

The Marzelline was soprano Melinda Hughes, who projected the young girl's hopes completely believably. Throughout in fact Hughes' clear tone, excellent pitching and nimble way with lines implied a singer with considerably more experience than her biography would suggest. I believe we will be hearing more of this young lady. (Luckily, Marzelline has more to do in Leonore than Fidelio.) Her Jaquino was Colin Judson, who sang Pang in the ROH Turandot of 2004/5, although alas not in the performance I attended. Acceptable but with no great force of character, he was one of the weaker aspects of this evening.

The titular heroine was actually a substitution – Turid Karlson was indisposed. How lucky, then, that Munich's Staats-Theater am Gärtnerplatz is staging Leonore at the moment and that their heroine, Brigitte Wohlfahrt, could make it over. Resolute yet ever-sensitive, it was as if she had been with COG from the very beginning – the interaction between Marzelline and Leonore in the great Quartet, 'Mir ist so wunderbar' was magnificent, and again at  'Um in der Ehe' (exclusive to Leonore; hearing more of the character of Marzelline also fleshes out this character who is of decidedly minor import in the later version). Wohlfahrt's greatest moment came in the famous 'Töt erst sein Weib' Act III cry as she shelters her husband from certain death. She tackled the early version of 'Komm Hoffnung' (shorn of 'Abscheulicher') with aplomb and charisma, more than could be said for the horns, who moved from the barely acceptable to the risible. A shame (it is exposed and difficult, in fairness).

Richard Wiegold's Rocco was focused yet slightly anonymous, a criticism that could also be aimed at Simon Neal's Pizarro. Pizarro's 'Ha! Welch ein Augenblick' revealed a fairly large voice and some presence, although this was no incarnation of black evil. Much better was his later (Act III) 'Er sterbe!' By this time one could hear him enjoying himself.

Florestan has to wait here until Act III before he gets to sing. Justin Lavender, a regular with COG, was reliable without being particularly heroic. Apt, really, as this version is decidedly less Heldentenorish than the later one. He became a believable prisoner although overshadowed, to be sure, by his Leonore in 'Namenlose Freude'. The weakest member of the cast was perhaps the Don Fernando, Dean Robinson, virtually inaudible to begin with. There was a gain in confidence, but not enough to validate him as a character. Of course one must not forget the chorus, excellently trained and a model of careful vocal balancing.

Opportunities to hear Leonore do not come along every day. We should be grateful to Chelsea Opera Group for this one.



Colin Clarke







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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)