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Seen and Heard Opera Review


The Lord Mayor’s Concert 2006: Beethoven, Fidelio
(concert performance) soloists, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conductor, Sir Colin Davis, Barbican Hall, 23.05. 2006 (JPr)

There are a couple of operas to which I get drawn regularly but from which I often return disappointed. One is Ariadne auf Naxos and the other is Fidelio. Persistence does pay off though, because this concert performance given by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis was as life enhancing as anyone could expect.

Why should Fidelio cause me problems? Perhaps because of its three stock characters, Florestan ,the prisoner of conscience, Leonore (disguised as Fidelio) full of selfless love; and Don Pizarro as the ‘heavy’. It is all so preposterous because Leonore, despite her shape and soprano voice has everyone fooled completely - even the jailer, Rocco, even wants ‘him’ for his son-in-law on the same day that the nasty commandant needs his secret prisoner murdered in the depths of the dungeon. There are other holes in the plot too. Would a real Pizarro give in quite so easily when the trumpet calls, like a voice from another world, instead of just murdering everyone and trying to come up with an excuse? Unlikely.

The work’s appeal of course – apart from its music - is that Beethoven was exploring a dangerous topic for his time, when the threat of political incarceration was very real indeed and the topic has resonated with every generation since. It is a great romance - the story of freedom for all from political oppression and a celebration of heroics in the name of love.

What was helpful in this performance was that because it was being recorded for LSO Live it was performed as a Gesamtkunstwerk, without pauses for applause except for at the end of “Fidelio’s” recitative and aria and no Leonore No.3 delaying the joyous finale. So it wasn’t as stop-start as it sometimes can be even allowing for all the dialogue. Under Colin Davis, who has conducted this music so many times before, the LSO played as if their livelihoods depended on it – which actually may be so these days because of the importance of these CD releases. The orchestra relished every colour, nuance and detail in the music as it veered from the almost rustic jollity of Rocco’s “Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben” to the demonic, bombast of Pizzarro’s “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!”.

It was clear from the outset that this was going to be a special evening because within a few bars of the start of the overture Sir Colin had both feet lifted off the podium by the force of his beat as he tried to distil the required heroic energy from his musicians. He remained in this vigorous form throughout the evening but nothing ever seemed rushed and there was time to dwell on Act I’s Mozart-like domestic drama , to set the right mood for the F minor foreboding at the opening of Act II, and the great C major paean to victory that is the final scene.

Conductor and orchestra were helped by having a superlative cast of singers. Andrew Kennedy brought a wealth of Lieder experience to his guileless Jaquino. As Marzelline, Sally Matthews revealed an outstanding soprano voice but for me upset the balance of the action bit as her character should be more flirtatious and tender. On the other hand she has a stunningly vibrant and focussed instrument that marks her out as a Leonore of the future. With her lean physique she might actually make it seem realistic on stage!

The idea of physique brings me to a couple of the other singers, firstly Juha Uusitalo’s Don Pizarro. He was bushy eye-browed, lank-haired and broad-shouldered, and with his tendency to go red in the face when his voice was under pressure at moments of sinister declamation, he had a passing resemblance to the young John Tomlinson. By contrast, John Mac Master was round, balding and bearded which seems the most effective body-build for the Wagner tenor. He seems to have come to this Fach relatively late in life (the biography of this Canadian tenor mentions both Monteverdi and Handel) but he sang “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen” just on the verge of delirium and his forthright voice had a degree of huskiness to it that was often effective.

Christine Brewer’s Leonore was a vast improvement on her very disappointing attempt for Sir Charles Mackerras in the same hall last year. She is undoubtedly a very powerful, dramatic, soprano who sings very beautifully and neither she nor John Mac Master were fazed by some of Beethoven’s more awkward vocal lines. Perhaps though she provides beauty at the expense of expression because she take so few risks with her voice: there was no sense of her abandoning herself to “Abscheulicher!” for instance. And this performance was undoubtedly helped by her being ( like most of the others) “off the book” which despite the necessary music stands allowed some real drama into characterisations.

So who grabbed the vocal honours on this occasion? The Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson (a former biology teacher – there is hope for me yet) and a late replacement as Rocco provided the perfect evocation of Everyman torn between keeping his nose clean, duty to his family and superiors , and finally wrestling with his conscience. Even if this had not been realised by his eloquent and mellifluous singing voice alone, he seemed the only singer to have a real feel for the necessary dialogue.

Despite the facts that there have been steadier First Prisoners (Andrew Tortise), that Don Fernando (Daniel Borowski) might have had more gravitas and that there could have been a little more radiance from the chorus during “O welche Lust!”, the performance received a rapturous reception and is a mid-point contender for one of my concerts of the year.

Jim Pritchard




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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)