S&H Prom review

Prom 35 Beethoven Fidelio. Soloists; Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Simon Rattle. Staging Deborah Warner. Thursday August 16th, 2001 (CC)

Playing to a stuffed-to-the-rafters Royal Albert Hall, Rattle's Fidelio emerged as thought provoking and, in the final analysis, life enhancing. Life changing, however, it was not. Beethoven's triumphant hymn to humanity and to the power of love can leave the listener uplifted but exhausted. The ear was constantly delighted by Rattle's often revelatory handling of orchestral detail and by the virtuosity of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but Beethoven's larger conception was rarely glimpsed.

True, this presentation (with minimal sets) was avowedly not in the grand tradition à la Klemperer. Tempos tended to the swift and textures were crystal clear. But Beethoven's vision focuses on the universal, the opera moving from the comic-opera opening duet between Jaquino and Marzelline to the transcendental affirmation of love at the close. Downscale the orchestra, use the latest critical editions, certainly. Downsize Beethoven's message? Certainly not.

There was little faulting the opening scenes. The Overture, replete with punchy accents and bullet-like timpani, set the pace for the evening. The orchestra were superb, with only the horns reminding us what a perilous beast the valveless natural horn is. The banter of Jacquino and Marzelline (Timothy Robinson and Lisa Milne respectively) was pure comedic delight. As time went on, Milne seemed a little overwhelmed by the vast space of the hall, however: her aria, O war ich schon mit die vereint, opened up little sympathy for this character whose plight is useless (right at the end of Act 2, in amongst the general euphoria, she ran off stage like an upset schoolgirl whose crush has come to nothing).

Reinhard Hagen's Rocco, however, was a different proposition. Hagen is a true bass and as such sounds, rightly, paternal: firm yet fair. His Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben was perfectly pitched, marvellously characterised and one of the evening's highlights. When the announcement came at the interval that Hagen was feeling unwell (but would continue regardless), it came as a real surprise: there was not an inkling of this in Act One.

Working with minimal props in Deborah Warner's staging, the singers were free to project the drama with their voices, instead. A pity, then, that the Don Pizarro, Steven Page, was so unconvincing both in looks and delivery. Dressed as a stockbroker-belt commuter might dress in his garden whilst trimming the hedge on a Sunday morning, he looked the epitome of English affability. Worst, he almost sounded like it, too. If characters in this opera (apart from the major two protagonists, perhaps) tend to be presented in black and white, Pizarro should be the jet black. Alas, it was impossible to believe that this character is the embodiment of human evil. His Act One aria, Ha, welch ein Augenblick, which should be delivered with blood-curdling intent, left one cold and untouched (and certainly not revolted).

Kim Begley's Florestan (a world away from Heldentenor territory) failed to convey the anguish of his hopeless situation at the beginning of Act Two. The opening line, Ach, welch Dunkel hier, beginning ppp, did not bring the audience close to his plight, nor did his vision of Leonore as an angel transport him to the higher realms. Rattle's swift tempo spared little time for emotional emphasis, both here and (frequently) elsewhere.

Charlotte Margiono, taking the part of Leonore, emerged as the star of the night. Her acting abilities are beyond reproach and, if her voice is not the largest, her stage presence is undeniable. Her every note suppurating with the courage of her convictions, her account of Abscheulicher! positively elevated the operatic experience. In tandem with Rocco, the dungeon scene was outstanding.

Which leaves Rattle's dramatic pacing, which uncharacteristically sagged on occasion (most notably towards the end of Act One), which spoiled the cumulative effect of the whole. As for the production of the final scene, bathing the audience as well as the stage in light towards the end is an old operatic trick which does Beethoven no favours (the music speaks so eloquently itself). Yes, Beethoven's life-enhancing message is all but indestructible, but I could not help feeling that my high expectations for this evening had been dashed. Rather than being on Cloud Nine, I found myself floating towards South Kensington tube on about Cloud Four.


Colin Clarke

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