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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1803-1814)
Leonore - Elisabeth Söderström (soprano)
Rocco - Curt Appelgren (bass)
Marzelline - Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Jaquino - Ian Caley (tenor)
Don Pizarro - Robert Allman (bass-bar)
Florestan - Anton de Ridder (tenor)
Don Fernando - Michael Langdon (bass)
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 1979 Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Peter Hall (stage director)
Directed by David Heather
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD101099 [120.00]

 

I spent twelve years as a member of the music staff at the Glyndebourne Festival, first in 1971 and 1972, then again from 1977 to 1986. This was before reclaiming my summers to watch my oldest son play cricket and add a career as a music historian to that of a conductor. When I first joined it was the heyday of the Pritchard era, before Haitink took over in 1978. If this Dutchman was a phlegmatic rehearser, very modest and particularly humble in his approach to the operas of Mozart with which he began (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), he was on the other hand an intense performer. The following year he tackled Fidelio in a new production by Peter Hall, with designs by John Bury, a strong team that went on to hold its own for a number of productions. A friend of Liszt once said, ‘Every theatre is a lunatic asylum, but opera is the ward for incurables’, a sentiment with which I wholly sympathise.

At some point towards the end of the overture in Hall’s Festival production the curtains opened on to a courtyard scene in which chickens were eating corn placed strategically over the stage. In fact it was an accurately calculated series of lines of corn beginning at the centre and radiating out into the wings where a stage-hand was waiting to grab them as they got to the end of their meal coinciding with the last chord of the overture. The amount of corn was astutely judged and timed, but when it wasn’t, the silence following the last chord would be filled by a loud squawk as they were grabbed and taken into the wings. The television director (the late and much lamented Dave Heather) took the safe option for this recording - for many years made by Southern TV, always at the end of August and before an invited audience, rather than a traditional Glyndebourne one - and avoided any catastrophe by screening the cast-list whilst the audience continued to look at closed curtains. One animal did survive from stage to TV screening, and that was the white horse on which Don Pizarro arrives upstage, stopping centre-stage for his master to dismount on to a raised raked platform thus mercifully concealing from the audience’s eyes all rear-end accidents which inevitably occurred.

There is another memory indelibly associated with this production, which persists with me to this day. Some days after the premiere, a soprano in the chorus invited many of her colleagues and members of the music staff, including myself, to a lunch-party at the house she had rented for the season in Lewes. She cooked us all chilli con carne but unfortunately forgot to soak the beans overnight. Midway through the afternoon the effects began to tell. I cannot possibly describe the details here but suffice to say that the Prisoners’ Chorus in that evening’s performance as they emerged very slowly from their cells and shuffled painfully into the courtyard was the most convincing one of the run. The word ‘run’ takes on a particularly sensitive meaning in the context of this story.

But to more serious matters. Seeing this recording again after more than a quarter of a century reminds me of Haitink’s muscular Beethoven and his unerring feel for shaping a phrase. The cast was a mixed bag of nationalities. The Swedish Söderström - affectionately known to us all as ‘La Sodastream’ - is the lynchpin of the ensemble, a supreme artist of the highest calibre with whom one readily sympathises in the role of Leonore/Fidelio. Her performance of the first act aria ‘Abscheulicher’ is nothing short of a consummate triumph, inspiring the LPO horns to great playing in the pit of the old ‘village hall’ Glyndebourne. The other soprano, Elizabeth Gale was also in superb voice and a fine actress. She went on to a highly successful career, and now enjoys an enviable reputation as a teacher. Söderström’s compatriot Curt Appelgren was a fine musician - not long before he had been a violinist in a Stockholm orchestra - and cut a jolly rustic figure as Rocco the jailer blessed with a conscience and a rich voice. On the other hand tenor Ian Caley (as the put-upon Jaquino) always had a rather prominently quick vibrato, but manages to blend satisfactorily with his fellow artists in the sublime quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’. The Australian Robert Allman arrives slightly unsteadily on his white charger looking for all the world like a cross between Napoleon and Marty Feldman. He has a rich bass-baritone despite some dubious antipodean German. The English-speaking members of Glyndebourne casts were invariably put to shame by their European colleagues when it came to sounding convincing in the pronunciation of foreign languages. The male chorus (then under Nicholas Cleobury) sing a heart-rending Prisoners’ Chorus at the start of the first act finale. Florestan is discovered at the start of the second act. The tenor Anton de Ridder was not a familiar name, despite a career in Karlsruhe stretching back thirty years - and that after starting life as a diamond cutter in his native Amsterdam - but the voice is both lyrical and heroic, and strikes sparks when he is reunited with his Leonore.

The LPO are in great fettle, and this is a fine performance among those Haitink went on to record during his tenure. Apart from some lapses in synchronisation in the second act and one or two spelling error in the subtitles, the transition from TV film to DVD is satisfactory.

Christopher Fifield

 

 



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