Fidelio at the Proms

The unimaginative and
the plain uncomprehending are led to decry it and sometimes, quite
staggeringly, to account it a dramatic failure. Even Wagner, who should have
known better, could be dismissive, for instance telling Cosima that a German
theatre would be better off opening with Weber’s Euryanthe
— admittedly, a wonderful work, but certainly a problematical one —
“rather than with Fidelio, which is much more conventional and
cold.” Conventional? Hardly, given the boldness of substituting for the
operatic expectations of conventional “characterisation” the
instantiation of an unutterably noble idea, “freedom”, itself
liberated from the confines of bourgeois expectations. Wagner either could not
see, or did not want to see — the latter, I suspect, more likely —
that the “rescue opera” was here both transcended and granted its
enduring memorial. Cold? This work veritably blazes with heat, and it certainly
did on this occasion, “occasion” being truly the operative word.
Still worse, we read Cosima a few years later record, again contrasting the
work with Richard’s beloved Euryanthe: “Then we start
discussing Fidelio, which R. describes as unworthy of the composer of
the symphonies, in spite of splendid individual passages.” Suffice it to
say, however, that there were here many “splendid individual
passages,” yet Fidelio was found not only to be worthy of the
composer, but to speak directly of and to that all-too-real modern-day
catastrophe to which the very existence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
bears witness.

So much for what one might call the meta-performance, but what of the
performance itself? Daniel Barenboim has rightly chided those who speak only of
the context to this orchestra and not of its musical accomplishments. One
cannot and should not forget the former, but the greatness of the enterprise
shows in the extraordinary artistic results; disentangling the two is a
fool’s game, and never more so than in a work such as this. I am
delighted therefore to report that the expectations built up from the previous
night’s two Proms (see here
and here)
were more than fulfilled. Indeed, the orchestral playing had a greater edge
than it had during the first half of the first of those concerts. The strings
once again demonstrated a depth that would be the envy of many a professional
orchestra — at least it would, were the absurd authenticist fashion not
to decry such tone. Occasionally the woodwind might have proved fallible, but
so what? One does not expect Klemperer’s Philharmonia, astonishing in a
different way. This work is about humanity, warts and all: just, in fact, what
Beethoven is about. There were in any case ample compensations in the
Harmoniemusik blend. The timpanist, a star from the previous night,
once again shone brightly. The brass was often magnificent, nowhere more so
than in those treacherous horn parts in Leonore’s first-act aria. They
were not outshone by Waltraud Meier, which is saying something. And then, of
course, there was that trumpet call. The thoughts and associations that rushed
through one’s mind at that point were myriad, but I can certainly report
that it brought tears to my eyes.

Barenboim’s direction was vigorous, unfailingly engaged, attentive to
singers and orchestra, without ever letting concerns for the possible detract
from the necessity of the utopian. Some of the overture — unwisely, I
thought, Leonore III — was impetuous rather than climactic in a
Furtw‰nglerian sense. (The performance these musicians gave of the overture
“as itself” in
Salzburg two years ago
was manifestly superior.) But his remained a signal
achievement, not least in terms of orchestral training, discipline, and of
course inspiration. The other cavil I should register is with the version of
the score employed. Messing about with Fidelio seems to be all the
rage at the moment. The Paris
recently commissioned new dialogue and re-ordered the opening
sequence, beginning moreover with Leonore I. Barenboim did something
similar, in eschewing almost all of the dialogue — is it really
that bad? — and putting Marzelline’s aria before her duet
with Jaquino (without, moreover, the tonal justification for this put forward
by Sylvain Cambreling in Paris). But then, I realise that I was speaking above
about confounding of expectations, so perhaps I am just lacking in imagination
myself. There was, in any case, a reason for replacement of the dialogue, since
it was replaced by Edward Said’s English narration for Leonore. On this
of all occasions, to do so was quite understandable and it certainly provides a
genuinely interesting and in some respects disquieting perspective upon the
work. Hearing Leonore recount what had taken place from a chronological
distance, and with clear implications that her hopes had since been dashed or
at least significantly tempered, warns us against any move towards easy
non-solutions. Don Fernando could never have put everything right.

Waltraud Meier, mostly recorded but also partly live, presented the
narration vividly, in delightfully accented English. However, it was her
vocal-dramatic performance that stole the show. She is of course a true stage
animal; this shone through in her facial expressions, her gestures, as well as
her voice. Yet, even though this was a concert performance, her performance was
certainly not out of place. She actually brought us into the most important
theatre of all, that of the imagination. And her account of
“Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung” was simply spellbinding. Simon
O”Neill was an excellent Florestan. He could not efface memories of Jonas
Kaufmann in that Paris performance
last December, but to have hoped for
that would have been entirely unreasonable. O”Neill proved himself fully
capable of the testing demands of this cruel role and even brought the odd
hint, if only a hint, of Jon Vickers to his timbre and projection. Gerd
Grochowski was a late replacement for Peter Mattei as Pizarro. I have recently
heard him both in Berlin
and London
as Telramund, and this performance was rather similar, evincing commendable
attention to musical and verbal text, but remaining underpowered. This was
undoubtedly exacerbated by the presence of Sir John Tomlinson as Wotan, sorry,
Rocco. Tomlinson’s voice might be showing its age on occasion, but this
is as nothing compared to the dramatic truth and commitment he shows. It was,
however, somewhat unfortunate that Rocco should from the outset be so much more
powerful a presence than Pizarro. Evil might or might not be banal, but we need
to believe in the very real power this wicked man wields. The other parts were
decently taken, Adriana Kučerov· showing to good effect a beautiful
voice, of which I should be more than happy to hear more. And it would be
unforgivable not to mention the truly outstanding singing from the combined
forces of the BBC Singers and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. Every note, every
word, was audible, but just as immediate was the dramatic effect, whether of
imprisonment, of hope, or of jubilation. The legendary Wilhelm Pitz’s
Philharmonia Chorus for Klemperer is the gold standard here, but these
musicians, if not so great in number — or at least that is how it sounds
— have little to fear from such a comparison.

Wagner was doubtless right to prefer the Ninth Symphony for the laying of
the foundation stone at Bayreuth. Yet the Ring, the sometime artwork
of the future, is not the only nineteenth-century work that speaks immediately
to our present condition. Fidelio does too (which is not, of course,
to say that many other works do not). And so, still more so, does a performance
of Fidelio such as this. Barenboim seems to me both right and wrong to
say that when this orchestra comes together, politics disappear, since everyone
must concentrate exclusively upon the music. For that coming together in the
service of something far greater is unavoidably political. It shames those who
create division and worse; it holds up an alternative. Such, after all, was the
original intention of Barenboim and Said. To the orchestra, mere
congratulations upon a tenth anniversary few, least of all its founders, could
ever have anticipated, seem pitifully inadequate. And to Blair, Bush, Olmert,
Ahmedinejad, Mugabe, Putin, et al., one wants, indeed needs, to say
once again, with Horace, “Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur”
(“Change but the name, and the tale is told of you”). Even if we
cannot quite bring ourselves to believe that present-day tyrants and war
criminals will be brought to justice, we must hope — and hope that at
least some of their victims will be rescued. Beethoven and these inspirational
young musicians help us do that. “Komm, Hoffnung…”

Mark Berry

image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven
product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
product_by=Leonore: Waltraud Meier; Florestan: Simon O”Neill; Don Pizarro: Gred Grochowski; Rocco: Sir John Tomlinson; Marzelline: Adriana Kučerov·; Jacquino: Stephan R¸gamer; Don Fernando: Viktor Rud; First Prisoner: Andrew Murgatroyd; Second Prisoner: Edward Price; BBC Singers, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir (chorus master: Tim Murray). West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), concert performance at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 August 2009.