Friday, 29 July 2016

Beethoven - Leonore (Buxton Festival, 2016)

Ludwig van Beethoven - Leonore

Buxton Festival 2016

Stephen Barlow, Stephen Medcalf, Kirstin Sharpin, David Danholt, Scott Wilde, Kristy Swift, Stuart Laing, Hrólfur Saemundsson, Jonathan Best

Buxton Festival - 19 July 2016

You can see the attraction in reviving the original abandoned version of Beethoven's only opera, even if the 1805 "first draft" has never received the popular acclaim accorded to the 1814 "finished article", Fidelio. There's the question of whether Leonore might not in actuality be closer to Beethoven's intentions before the censor and historical events caused him to rework it a number of times and introduce modifications that never fully satisfied the composer.

There's no question that Leonore works as a perfectly viable alternative version of Fidelio and there may indeed be a case for calling it purer, but I'm not sure anyone would go as far as Stephen Medcalf, the director of this production for the 2016 Buxton Festival, and claim that it has a better dramatic consistency. If anything, there is more of a feeling in Leonore of it being a case of Beethoven showing what he can do in the lyric medium. And given a good account - as Leonore is here in this production - what he can do is nothing short of phenomenal.

If the domestic and romantic frivolity of opéra comique concessions of the opening Act of Fidelio has always seemed at odds with the darker tone of the later acts, the stunning sequence of duets, trios, quartets all singing across one another in the opening sections is just dazzling. With the balance and range of the voices, particularly when they are sung as well as they are here, the act culminating of course with the famous "O welche Lust" chorus of the prisoners, all of it making the arrangement of this act as it stands in Leonore even more impressive.

Impressive but also meaningful. Somehow, whether it's the music, its playing or the stage direction, the purpose of Jaquino, Marzelline, Rocco and Fidelio's little domestic dramas becomes clear and its iterated in  "O welche Lust"; "Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben! Der Kerker eine Gruft" (Life is up here on the outside! The prison is a tomb). Beethoven presents a simple slice of life in Act I and as ordinary and commonplace as it might seem, the value of it and the beauty of how it is depicted in the musical arrangements shows us the nature of the very thing that is denied to those unjustly locked away and what it means to them.

So perhaps there is a stronger sense of dramatic consistency in Leonore than there is in Fidelio. It helps at least if the director has faith in this belief and is capable of putting it across in the stage direction and Stephen Medcalf does that. Getting across the idea of Leonore being a "purer" version of Beethoven's intent that comes from the heart is there with the composer himself present during the overture. It didn't seem strictly necessary or relevant to show Beethoven sitting writing the overture as it was playing, but by the latter half of the opera it becomes clearer. Florestan in the cage is Beethoven, the walls of the prison the walls of his room, himself a prisoner of his growing deafness, his passions for the Countess Josephine Deym, only finding expression and escape into the light of his music.

The personal passion and involvement of the composer with the content is important, but it's more than this else Leonore/Fidelio would not be the masterpiece it is considered today. It is of course, as the subtitle indicates, about "The Triumph of Marital Love", but it's also about more than just one couple overcoming adversity. The best idea in this production, even though it appears to be a comic touch, is for many of the other soldiers disrobe and be revealed as "Leonores", each of them fighting their own personal battle for freedom and justice. It strikes the right note at the extraordinary finale of this opera and is wholly appropriate for a heroic escape opera par excellence.

The conviction in the stage production was matched by the performances. Attempting to establish a connection between the composer and the subject, the overture somewhat lacked pace and dramatic drive, although its purpose would later become clearer. Elsewhere however, Beethoven's immaculately precise composition and the complexity of this 'virtuoso' version of his only opera was brought out beautifully and majestically in the Stephen Barlow's conducting of the Northern Chamber Orchestra. It hit all the musical high points as well as the dramatic points.

The singing was overall excellent. Scott Wilde's assured Rocco, Kristy Swift's bright Marzelline and David Danholt's anguished Florestan particularly stood out, demonstrating perfectly the kind of Mozartian lyricism that is the ideal voice for these roles. Leonore however is another matter, a much more challenging role that requires Wagnerian stamina, range and precision and it's even more complex in this version. It was then sometimes a little beyond the valiant efforts of Kirstin Sharpin who often struggled to stay on note, and in this unforgiving opera any minor imprecision was made very apparent. It also shows however just how brilliantly constructed Leonore is, and Buxton also make a strong case for the dramatic integrity of the work if not necessarily its superiority over Fidelio.

Links: Buxton Festival