Leonore, ‘Buxton Festival at its best’
July 13, 2016
Telegraph by Rupert Christiansen
In art as in life, first thoughts can be better guides than second ones. Buxton Festival’s production almost persuades me that Beethoven’s re-conception of Leonore as Fidelio a decade after its première incurred more losses in depth than gains in concision.
Leonore is certainly baggier than its successor: it contains more musical numbers and some of them meander on (as well as being pointlessly tricky to sing). But overall it offers a richness of psychological motivation and a detailed intensity of realism that the starkly black-and-white, bluntly good-and-evil axis of Fidelio lacks.
Both its opening domestic scene (graced with a subsequently excised trio for Jaquino, Marzelline and Rocco and a charming duet for Leonore and Marzelline) and the extended dramatic climax (which gives more weight to the question of Pizarro’s fate), seem to me superior to Fidelio’s.
Stephen Medcalf’s staging, set in the early 19th century, kicks off with one very bad idea – a dumbshow during the long overture in which Florestan becomes Beethoven himself, struggling with the onset of deafness – but in other respects it is excellent. Francis O’Connor’s panelled set springs some ingenious surprises, and Medcalf fills the narrative with enriching incident and nuance: new prisoners being inducted in the first scene, Marzelline’s exasperation at her father’s lectures, the blood-brotherhood ritual that Pizarro enforces on his Praetorian Guard, the animal cage in which Florestan is incarcerated.
Kirstin Sharpin makes an eloquent and committed Leonore, albeit one with a tendency to live up to her surname – she can sound shrill under pressure. Two young singers, David Danholt and Hrolfur Saemundsson, make admirable stabs at the vocal challenges Beethoven piles on to Florestan and Pizarro. Scott Wilde is a properly venal Rocco, and Kristy Swift and Stuart Laing flesh out the characters of Marzelline and Jaquino with flair. The youthful chorus is absolutely first-class. All praise to Stephen Barlow whose conducting of the Northern Chamber Orchestra combines ferocity with warmth and grandeur.
Buxton Festival commands limited financial resources, and its revival of this large-scale piece is beyond plucky. North of the Watford Gap there is virtually no other regular professional opera during the summer months, and it would behove Mancunian plutocracy, not to mention the Arts Council, to show a little more fostering generosity towards an institution that can at its best produce work of such high calibre.