Finding Fidelio in Rome

ItalyItaly Beethoven, Fidelio (in concert form): Chorus (chorus master, Ciro Visco) and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica Rome 20.10.2016. (JB)

Fidelio (c) Musacchio & Ianniello

Florestan – Simon O’Neill
Leonora – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Don Fernando – Julian Kim
Don Pizarro – Sebastian Holecek
Rocco – Günther Groissböck
Marzelline – Armanda Forsythe
Jaquino – Maximilian Schmitt

Ovid created and destroyed metamorphosis in a single stroke. That is not because all great works carry their own death warrant. They do. But it is in matters of which Ovid could not have known, in which he turns out to be a supreme master. That makes the Metamorphosis eternal. Until the recent arrival of microbiological scanners it was not precisely understood how caterpillars became butterflies. It’s a small step from there to appreciate the thousands of microbiological transformations that are taking place every minute of every day within every living organism. Please include humans –wretched and otherwise- in that.  If this sounds like magic, you will see that Ovid got it right without knowing it. (Always the best way of knowing, he might have added with a chuckle.)

Beethoven’s creativity followed a similar path. All Beethoven’s paths were a struggle. That is frequently audible in his music. So how does the symphonist become an opera composer? The theory is as simple as the process is complex: the micro-cells are arranging themselves in conflict and harmony until they arrive at the undeclared goal. (To declare the goal would be cheating, rather like Ovid’s ‘knowing’).

I thank Bruno Monsaingeon who caused the embryos of some of these ideas to bounce off the walls in a lively exchange we had recently in Cremona, crudely summarized by me, in the final part of Movers, Makers, Musicians, Mingle, Part One, in the News and Featured Articles of this website.

It cannot be a coincidence that struggle is the central theme of Fidelio. There could be no better theme for Beethoven’s creativity. Politically he was a libertarian. Almost fanatically so. Vienna was chosen for the premiere (1805) and the popular Singspiel that called for spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, a la operetta, the structure. You can see why this premiere was a flop. There wasn’t a joke in sight. And most of the audience was French troops occupying the city! And this, you will recall, is a tale of the evils and injustices of the corrupt, rich and powerful.

A revision in 1806 fared little better; it wasn’t until 1814 that Beethoven rewrote Fidelio with the operetta structure consigned to the waste paper basket, the music kept busy from start to finish with less spoken dialogue, the three acts reduced to two and what is studiedly made to feel like an operatic tragedy, saved by an unexpected twist at the end. Even Alfred Hitchcock working with Patricia Highsmith couldn’t have thought of a better dramatic framework.

Liberty for all! That cry is very much in the air in Rome. Students who have recently occupied a Trastevere cinema, have stuck up a poster of Marx outside, with words underneath in English, War between Europeans is civil war. Are they expecting Mother May to pass by sometime soon? The Italian Prime Minister is holding a referendum to get through his reforms. The mere mention of a Referendum makes all Europe think of the folly of the UK. And no use putting this on a postcard to 10 Downing Street. I am sure the lady’s post is intercepted. Sorry that I have moved slightly towards comic opera. Beethoven forthwith assiduously avoided it.

So does the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. They are very nearly the protagonists of this opera. They are on-stage with their magnificent strings reduced to Beethoven’s Vienna size: 8:8:8:6:6. Yes, that is six double basses, who were raised on a platform behind, and crowning the orchestra. They not only provide the grounded solidity of the orchestra, but also, as the drama darkens, the nuances of that same darkness. Beethoven, your creativity is being duly recognized tonight. But did you really have six basses in Vienna? Though if you did, they would have been stuffed into an orchestral pit. With the Santa Cecilia arrangement, the immense talents of its bassists are rightly on display. I don’t believe I have ever heard a string sound with such bite. That goes for all the strings. Their leader was Roberto Gonzalez-Monjas, playing on the 1710 Giuseppe Guarneri Tilus Andreae.

All that before you mention the arresting lyricism of the strings. This is where the Gonzalez-Monjas leadership comes into its own: the captain perfectly leads his sturdy ship through all the lyrical drama of Fidelio. The orchestra opened the show with the (1814) Fidelio overture, but also, between the two scenes of Act Two, the Leonora no.3. Both overtures had some impressive brass playing with Guglielmo Pellarin’s golden, warm, first horn contribution early in the evening.  Special mention too should be made of Andrea Lucchi’s clear-voiced trumpet which changes voice from warning to welcoming as the drama’s turmoil unfolds.  In the recapitulation of the Leonora no.3, Beethoven has the flute make three abortive attempts to take off before succeeding in a fourth, to soar into the heavens. Thank you Andrea Oliva; the audience were all with you in that stunning takeoff. No one bothered to fasten their seatbelt.  Music communication doesn’t come finer than this.

Tony Pappano’s pacing was perfection throughout. I do not think there is another conductor alive who has such a felicitous rapport with his players. That rapport sounds. And how!

Anyone who had the experience of Birgit Nilsson plastering us to our seats with her pure, steely, unchallengeable sound of Fidelio, will be shocked by Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s underwhelming attempt at the role. In tone production she appeared to be striving after a voice for Zerlina. Is this some brand of Swedish humour that I am missing out on?

On reflection, I don’t think it was a mistake for Beethoven to retain the original (comic) scene (1806) that opens the 1814 rewrite. The jailer’s daughter, Marzelline (Amanda Forsythe) is being gently flirted with by Jaquino, her father’s assistant (Maximillian Schmitt). Marzelline is in love with Fidelio though, and makes no secret of this.  Father Rocco arrives multiplying the confusion and the duet becomes a trio.  Then Fidelio appears to make a quartet.

To Italian ears all this sounds like an ideal libretto for Rossini’s wit. But of course, Beethoven doesn’t have even the smallest hint of wit.  So should he be setting it in the first place? However, it certainly IS a good ploy to lead the audience to expect light comedy, so that when stark tragedy moves in, it arrives all the more effectively because of its unexpectedness. (An old Hitchcock trick there.) But in the Rome performance none of this works because all four voices were bland, making it impossible to distinguish one from the other.  A little later in the same act, Günther Groissböck (Rocco) does thankfully show, some of the right vocal touches for the basso-buffo in his arietta in praise of booze.

Sebastian Holeck has a fine basso profondo voice as Pizarro, the vengeful baddie of the plot, determined to murder Florestan, as set out in his arietta, ‘Er sterb in seinen Ketten’, following the duet with Rocco. The Italians recognized the aptness of his voice and rewarded him with the longest applause of the evening.

That is not entirely fair. For the finest voice of the performance both musically and dramatically was Simon O’Neill’s as Florestan. Perfectly focused and heroically ringing, he portrayed both heroism and vulnerability, often in the same stroke.

The Prisoners Chorus was wonderfully hushed and beautifully nuanced, both of tone and diction.

Jack Buckley

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