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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Leonore (1805) [2:20:07]
Marlis Petersen: Leonore
Maximilian Schmitt: Florestan
Dimitry Ivashchenko: Rocco
Robin Johannsen: Marzelline
Johannes Weisser: Don Pizarro
Tareq Nazmi: Don Fernando
Johannes Chum: Jaquino
ZŘrcher Sing-Akademie, Freiburger Barockorchester / RenÚ Jacobs
rec. live, 7 November 2017, Philharmonie de Paris
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902414.15 [70:10 + 69:57]

The time is certainly ripe for a reevaluation of Beethoven’s first attempt at an opera, the abortive 1805 three-act version of Fidelio known as Leonore (Hess 109). For a long while only Herbert Blomstedt’s 1970s rendition of the opera has been commonly available; for instance, it appears in two of the three “Complete Beethoven” box sets issued for the composers’s 250th birthday, as well as the Brilliant Classics Complete Edition. At last, we have a modern, well-recorded Leonore that satisfies many, if not all of the requirements for this work.

The action takes place entirely in a Spanish prison. Rocco, the jailer, lives in fear of the governor, Don Pizarro, who is not above putting political prisoners in the dungeon, slowly to be starved to death. Indeed, there is one there right now. Rocco’s daughter Marzelline has fallen in love with the young man Fidelio, who has been taken under Rocco’s wing as his assistant. But what they don’t know is that Fidelio is actually Leonore, the wife of Florestan, a man who has been seized by Pizarro, seeking in disguise to find out what happened to her beloved husband. Her timing is good or bad, depending on how you look at it, as Don Pizarro has given orders to murder the prisoner in the dungeon, and Fidelio has been assigned to assist.

Beethoven worked long and hard on his opera based on a drama by Bouilly subtitled Conjugal Love. He had the misfortune to set the premiere in Vienna for November, 1805. Napoleon Bonaparte had other plans, invading Austria that year. The nobility of Vienna fled, and the city was occupied by French-speaking troops. The premiere nevertheless went on, to hoots and jeers from the soldiers, and it was a predictable disaster. The fact it takes place in Spain, which was controlled by the Bonapartes, probably did not help matters.

Despondent, Beethoven listened to his friends, who prevailed upon him that the opera was too long and needed substantial cuts. That led to a chopped-up and rather unsatisfactory 1806 version, which to my knowledge has only been recorded once (although John Eliot Gardiner has created an amalgam of what he considers the best parts of the 1805 and 1806 versions). That 1806 version was completely reworked with a revised libretto in 1814 to make the Fidelio, op.72, that is well-known and loved the world over.

But there is quite a bit in the original three-act version that is worth hearing, and RenÚ Jacobs does an admirable job of bringing that forth. For instance, in the 1806 and final versions of the opera, the subplot of Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter, falling in love with Fidelio, the disguised woman Leonore, is almost a throwaway and just annoys the audience as it slows down the story. In the three-act version, that subplot takes up most of the first act, and in that form it actually works much better. The broader canvas allows for the story to develop more naturally, and thus helps counteract the contrived and trivial “pants romance” of the later versions.

Beethoven’s structure is clearer in the original: the first act with its romance is quite Mozartean in character, with light, frothy pieces. In the second act, the music and the plot take a darker turn as Rocco fills Leonore in on the evil machinations of Pizarro, and the third act set in the dungeons is gloomier still. As Jacobs points out in his liner notes, the drama of the third act is also substantially increased. Since as far as both Florestan and Leonore know, Pizarro has gone to get help to murder them both, their duet takes on a far more serious character and is suspenseful despite the trumpet call that signals help may be on the way. In many ways, the original version is more thoughtful and dramatic than either of the succeeding versions, which by comparison are abrupt and the characters thinly sketched. At two hours and twenty minutes running time, it’s hardly Wagnerian in scope and certainly should be tolerable for modern audiences.

RenÚ Jacobs helps his case significantly by using brisk tempi that move the proceedings along without ever making it feel rushed. His cast is quite strong. In particular, Robin Johannsen successfully portrays Marzelline as charming instead of her usual depiction as a dunce. Likewise, Dimitry Ivashchenko as Rocco gives fine depth to a character usually treated as a rustic bumpkin. Marlis Peters gives a fine Leonore performance, with a slightly different character to her Fidelio and her Leonore.

The Pizarro of Johannes Weisser is more of a mixed bag. On his big solo, “Ha! welch ein Augenblick,” he really sounds like he’s taking immense pleasure in the thought of murdering poor Florestan. At the same time, his low notes are a bit shaky and not as convincing as one might hope. At the other end of the scale is Maximilian Schmitt’s Florestan, who sounds altogether too hale and hearty for someone imprisoned in darkness, starving for two years. While one can excuse some of that vigor after he is found by Leonore, he’s already in that state during his soliloquy when he’s supposedly despairing and resigned to his fate for speaking the truth.

Some of the pieces cut from the 1806 and 1814 versions are definitely worth hearing. The duet of Marzelline and Leonore in Act II, “Um in der Ehe froh zu leben,” with its interplay of voices and a dancing violin against a more serious cello, is a highlight of the recording. Also notable is Leonore’s Recitative and Aria, “Ach, brich noch nicht,” just before the second Act finale, as she summons up the courage to do what she must. The loss of both pieces in Fidelio makes Leonore more of a caricature than a character.

Jacobs does take some liberties with the text on this recording. He has completely rewritten the interstitial spoken dialogue to be more modern. He also inserts Beethoven’s lied Zńrtliche Liebe (Ich liebe dich), WoO 123, into the first spoken section for Marzelline to sing unaccompanied. An to the third act finale cribbed from the 1806 version gives supporting character Jaquino something to do at the end, and helps tie up the loose end of his story.

A recent news story regarding a revival of the 1805 Leonore made mention of a reconstructed version of Florestan’s aria. No such attempt was made here to try to reassemble that aria, which was completely dismembered and lost in the course of the 1806 revision.

In addition, the Introduction to Act II, WoO 2b, was decades ago quite conclusively shown to be the correct opening to Act II of the 1805 version, discarded in 1806 when Beethoven hacked the work down to two acts. It was replaced by the March in the 1806 version to act as a connecting tissue. Jacobs inexplicably retains the 1806 March and omits WoO 2b. Since he does not comment on that, he may have been unaware of the more recent scholarship on this point, which makes for a missed opportunity, since that music does survive intact and just needs to replace the March at the proper place in the score.

The packaging of the limited edition includes a 14 cm x 19 cm hardcover book that includes significant notes and the full libretto, all in English, German and French. The recording quality is excellent throughout, especially for a live recording. The only giveaway of that fact that I noted was that in the Terzet “Gut, S÷hnchen, gut” Rocco seems to have gotten away from the microphone for a bit, resulting in some imbalance. The audience is incredibly quiet and I don’t recall hearing a single cough.

Mark S. Zimmer

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