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Prom 50: Beethoven,  Fidelio: Soloists, BBC Singers, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 22.8.2009 (JPr)

Oh dear, how can I quibble about a concert that has so much goodwill attached to it? It is now 10 years since Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and in an interview recently for the BBC Barenboim spoke about how it all began. They wanted to ‘Create a forum where all the young musicians in the Middle East from Israel and the Arab countries would come together and make music and have open discussion and airing of views. Not to agree on them but to air them. We had been thinking about 8 or 12 musicians at the most would come and in order not to make it a token Arab presence – because we knew the quantity and quality of musical talent in Israel – we decided to start with the Arab world and go on from there. You can imagine our astonishment when we had more than 200 applications and then we realised we had to do it as an orchestra and so we, in the end, decided on 40% Arab, 40% Israeli and 20% former East Germans from the Weimar Region.’

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has an annual summer school in the relative neutrality of Seville, Spain, and the benefit to the decade’s worth of talented young musicians that have been involved in this artistic collaboration is unimaginable: sadly politics in the Middle East has not brought the sides involved together in any way that mirrors this artistic collaboration. This year’s summer tour has included visits to Bayreuth and a series of concerts at both the Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms. Amongst other music they have been featuring performances of their first opera, Fidelio, Beethoven’s life-enhancing view of humanity’s paean to justice, freedom and the power of love. It is a political message that very apt for this particular conductor and his splendid orchestra.

I must say before I begin commenting on the performance that it was enthusiastically – and foot-stampingly - received by the sold-out Royal Albert Hall and I could be accused of mere carping. I believe however the jubilation was more for the ideals that Beethoven, Said and Barenboim stand for rather than what we heard. For me it was an uneasy mix of opera-as-oratorio with even a bit of pantomime thrown in. When I read about the spoken dialogue being replaced by an English narration by Edward Said I was expecting some commentary perhaps imposing twenty-first century fear or aspirations on the eighteenth-century narrative. However what there was seemed rather kitsch with Waltraud Meier in deliberate English spoken through a thick German accent, giving us a ‘Once upon a Time’ story beginning: ‘There was never a day like it before, or again’ before blending into pre-recorded material as a stream of consciousness and ending ‘The whole experience fades away as I speak about it now. Let me try to go through it again, live its minute intensities, second by second’. Actually the original text tells us all we need to know and since most of the audience had the translation they could read phrases like Leonore’s ‘The call of pity, the voice of humanity – does nothing touch your tiger’s heart’ as she snarls away at Pizzarro and understand well enough what Beethoven was saying to us.

This ‘introduction’ was prior to Barenboim conducting Leonore No.3 and sitting through all this meant it was more than 20 minutes before the opera – as such – began. Here again Leonore No.3 is a fine piece but it recapitulates all the themes of the opera and has the dramatic finality of the last movement of a symphony so is not the scene-setter - if I can put it crudely – that is 1814 rethink is. Much better would to have this music, as Mahler first suggested, between the scene changes in Act 2. However it did let us wallow in the virtuosity of West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s strings and woodwinds and the detail in Barenboim’s line and expressive orchestral detail. His reading also had a certain unsentimentally to it that allowed Beethoven’s inner musical voices to emerge with crystal clarity. Sadly however the soloists’ voices intruded from time to time to obscure all of this.

Adriana Kučerová seemed overwhelmed by the company she was keeping and held a score in her hand like a comforter. Her small, child-like, soprano is suited for Mahler 4 but not for Marzelline. Stephan Rügamer (Jaquino), Gerd Grochowski (admittedly a late replacement as Don Pizzarro) and Victor Rud (Don Fernando) were a rather underpowered trio, with little vocal authority, personality and all three were united in having rather opaque diction.

At the other extreme of vocal experience Sir John Tomlinson was a Rocco as only he could sing it. In his case he sang the words with his superbly enunciated German. However it is with great sadness that I must report that his opening ‘Gold’ aria completely defeated him and I would have been happier to see him pull the score from Miss Kučerová’s hands rather than have him bluster his way through an aria he had clearly forgotten a great deal of. When the music lay well for his voice then he was his usual Falstaffian-self but I will try to forget his off-night as soon as possible. This, of course, can happen to anyone but I wish I had not been there to witness it or that many mainstream critics seem to have been oblivious to it!

Waltraud Meier remains the consummate stage-animal with every note she sings redolent of the courage of her convictions. She was sympathetically accompanied by Barenboim through her strangely intimate ‘Abscheulicher!’ but she remains such a convincing actress that at the line ‘So leuchtet mir ein Farbenbogen’ when she reached out I almost believe I saw the rainbow across the side stalls. Her chest voice seems to have gained some warmer tones in recent years, however higher up when she sang the pivotal phrase ‘Töt erst sein Weib!’ it was shrill and sharp.

Act Two was saved by the all-too-brief contribution of Simon O’Neill as Florestan: a true Heldentenor, he has the youthful lungs and vocal flexibility to get through the fearsome tessitura unscathed. He managed to begin to his ‘Gott, welch Dunkel hier!’ without any exaggeration of the opening word on a note that swelled gloriously from its very quiet opening to reach all the far points of the Royal Albert Hall. His voice was the most humane of the evening and he quickly passed through some Jon Vickers-like gruffness to employ his natural sturdy lyricism to good effect particularly for the delirium of the angelic vision of Leonore. In this concert context he sang the role as more noble and unbowed than someone weakened to the point of death.

The BBC Singers and Geoffrey Mitchell Chorus were well-schooled and sang clearly with precision but with little feeling. I never thought for a moment they were prisoners celebrating an unexpected taste of freedom or their ultimate liberty in the way any experienced opera chorus would. Barenboim made the most of the dramatic pauses after the trumpet calls and then came the Finale which perhaps was the best part of this performance. ‘Wer ein holdes Weib errungen’ was given a grand treatment leading to a spirited, life-affirming, re-statement of Beethoven’s indestructible message. Since the music here clearly speaks for itself nothing less would be expected. Was this a suitable tribute to Edward Said – perhaps; was it as good an evening as I had been hoping for – certainly not!

Nevertheless I joined in the applause at the end for an ‘ideal’ rather than the music when Barenboim spoke to the audience and said how what they were doing is an ‘alternative way of thinking for the Middle East, to live together and not back to back’. This being the orchestra’s final concert of the summer he finished by trying to shake the hand of each one of the young musicians who began to embrace each other … leaving us with the image of the true message of the evening.

Jim Pritchard 

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