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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (1805, revised 1814)
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano) - Leonore, Anton de Ridder (tenor) - Florestan, Curt Appelgren (bass) - Rocco, Robert Allman (bass) - Pizarro, Elizabeth Gale (soprano) - Marzelline, Ian Caley (tenor) - Jacquino, Michael Langdon (bass) - Ferrando, John Robertson and Roger Bryson (tenor and bass) - Prisoners
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Glyndebourne Opera House, Sussex, 1979
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 307 [128.00] 

When this DVD arrived I put it into the player, intending to get some idea about the quality of the sound and picture before reviewing it in detail later on. Two hours later I was still watching, riveted by the quality of the performance.
 
It is not perfect, but it is pretty close to that despite a number of relatively minor drawbacks. First of these is the fact that the mono sound, taken from a television transmission, is rather variable, with voices sometimes moving out of focus and the orchestra generally rather recessed behind them. Then, the stage of the old Glyndebourne Opera House is clearly small, and this leaves little room for the chorus in the final scene and leaves the action elsewhere sometimes feeling cramped. The production has clearly been mounted specially for television by David Heather, with cameras placed in the wings showing views across the stage and a presumably invited and not very enthusiastic audience. There are still points when specific points in the action are less obvious than they might be. There are also occasional flaws in the performance - notably the horns in the Overture. Bernard Haitink is not the most flamboyant of conductors, and he notably underplays the grander elements while also missing out on some sheer theatrical excitement. That said, he is never less than adequate in his support of the singers, and sometimes much more than that as in the prelude to the Second Act.
 
What do these cavils matter, in the face of Peter Hall’s masterly production? One could so very easily dismiss this staging as ‘traditional’. This, in the sense that he uses realistic scenery, avoids contemporary allegorical interpolations, and sets the opera firmly in the period of the original story as the Enlightenment triumphed over the ancien régime in Europe. Beethoven was forced to set the story further back in time, transferring the action to sixteenth century Spain, but he always had the contemporary milieu in mind. It most certainly is not ‘traditional’ if that is interpreted to mean slovenly imitations of previous producers’ ideas. Time and again there are insights into the characters on stage, their feelings and motivations, that simply are missed by most other directors. Take just one small example. When Pizarro is trying to persuade Rocco to murder his prisoner, he tries to cozen him by praising his courage, and at the end of the phrase Beethoven introduces a quirky little woodwind theme which sounds for all the world like a conventional ending to the musical phrase. Not here. Hall takes the perky phrase as the cue for a reaction from Rocco, a sort of “What, me?” which exactly fits the music at this point and at the same time adds greater depth to the character. All of Hall’s character insights are like this. None of the characters, not even Pizarro, is entirely villainous or even entirely heroic - Leonore and Florestan both have clear moments of doubt - and at every point the temptation to fall into the standard stock operatic gesture is avoided. Hall’s experience as a theatrical producer, here placed entirely at the service of the music and the drama, could serve as a model for all those legions of theatrical and film directors who plaster their own conceptions or misconceptions over the operatic scores they push in front of an audience on stage.
 
Hall is superbly served by his cast, none of whom are natural casting for their parts but all of whom acquit themselves well. Elisabeth Söderström could never, I think, have sung Leonore in a really big opera house, where her voice would have been too small in scale; here she is superb, acting as always with total involvement and producing really heroic notes when required - a couple of minor squalls aside. Anton de Ridder is an unlikely figure of a starving prisoner, but again his essentially lyrical voice produces sounds of heroic dimensions, and he reacts well to the situation around him. Robert Allman sounds disconcertingly off-mike during most of his big vengeance aria, but he comes into his own later on. His gnawing self-doubt is well conveyed during the dialogue which is less extensively cut in this production than usual, revealing many unsuspected facets to the plot.
 
Elizabeth Gale and Ian Caley are an unusually positive pair of secondary lovers, not for one moment allowing their own sub-plot to be subsumed by the greater drama going on around them. Michael Langdon - who is not credited on either the box or in the insert booklet - is a rather worn-sounding minister on his first appearance, but he soon finds his mark. His rather stagy demeanour is perhaps suitable for a deus ex machina. The two solo prisoners, neither of them credited on the box, in the booklet, or on the closing titles, are also real people in their own right and their dramatic colloquy makes the Prisoners’ Chorus more than just the usual statement about the rights of political prisoners. It’s also about the very nature of imprisonment itself.
 
This brings us to Curt Appelgren’s Rocco. It would appear that Hall sees Rocco almost as the lynchpin of the drama, a generally good-natured fellow who has been pushed into the evil machinations of Pizarro against his better judgement and is desperately trying to find his way out of the situation. This is very far from a ‘traditional’ interpretation of the role, but Hall and Appelgren make it work even though one might not always want to see it done precisely this way. By treating the character seriously, Hall also makes another valid contemporary point. Time and again in current history one is struck by people whose excuse for doing evil is not only that they were “just obeying orders” but also that they did what they did “because it seemed the right thing to do”. Rocco is here in just that sort of situation. He is quite happy to starve Florestan to death on the orders of Pizarro, although he draws the line at actually killing him; but at the same time he recognises that killing Florestan might be “the right thing to do” because it will save him further suffering. Appelgren clearly understands all this, and his intelligent and thoughtful interpretation - and excellent singing - brings the whole dilemma clearly before our eyes. A wonderful experience.
 
It is interesting to compare this mono DVD from 1979 with a rather earlier 1970 DG effort which also derived from a specially filmed version for television, this time of a stage production from the Deutsche Oper Berlin - I referred to this DVD when reviewing an even earlier black-and-white performance last year. The cast there are all more natural Beethovenians, more obvious candidates to sing their roles; but the dramatic involvement, the sense that they are experiencing the music as if living through it for the first time, is missing. Yes, Gwyneth Jones is stronger than Söderström, James King is stronger than de Ridder, Martti Talvela is stronger than Langdon … but in the end sheer musical strength is not really enough. One ought to believe in these people.
 
The booklet notes by Babette Hesse read better in French than in the slightly quirky English translation, and while she goes out of her way to single out Haitink’s contribution she completely neglects everyone else. There are no extra items on the disc, but then we don’t really need a lengthy self-serving documentary to explain the ‘conception’ behind this production. The subtitles (credited to Spike Hughes) are sometimes positively confusing - not indicating clearly who is singing what - and sometimes misleadingly free, but they serve to underline the drama of Hall’s direction. The German diction of the singers, both in the sung passages and spoken dialogue, sounds pretty faultless to me. Only one point about the otherwise scrupulously period sets and costumes - which occurred to me on second viewing: would Rocco really have been able to afford spectacles with such enormous lenses on a gaoler’s salary at the end of the eighteenth century?
 
In the review of the Deutsche Oper set of DVDs I complained about the appalling failure of British television companies to record performances from the 1960s which should surely have been preserved for posterity. I should then have exempted from my strictures the small independent television company Southern Television, who over a period of years recorded on a restricted budget productions from Glyndebourne for national broadcast - and now for issue on DVD. They may have sometimes made cuts in the music to fit these into the broadcasting schedules, the sound may have been patchy and the visuals sometimes ill-focused; but at least they did it, and for that we should be eternally grateful. Ignore the dull cover; this is an exceptional release.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey 


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