“Beethoven’s what?” Leonore at Buxton Festival

Bachtrack by Dominic Lowe

“Beethoven's what?” Leonore at Buxton Festival

This year’s Buxton Festival began with a production of Beethoven’s opera Leonore. Yes, a Leonore opera, not just a Leonore overture. The history of the gestation of Beethoven’s definitive contribution to the history of German opera, Fidelio, is a troubled one and a great many notes were spilled from its genesis to its unsuccessful première as Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe in 1805 and then its reworked and cut form which finally premiered as Fidelio in 1814 to great acclaim.

There is no doubt that part of the reason for Leonore‘s first flop was due to circumstances beyond Beethoven’s control – the arrival of the Napoleonic army in Vienna a week before the opera was to be premiered there prompted a mass exodus of Beethoven’s fans and patrons, and with ailing hearing, Beethoven chose to conduct it himself before a largely French audience. Not by any means an auspicious start, yet despite the many claims that Leonore‘s proponents make for it – of being more dramatic, of being more direct, of some greater summation of humanity, I do not believe the earlier version matches the dramatic and musical genius of Fidelio, with the first two acts in particular lacking the tautness and consequent impact that its final version had.

Stephen Medcalf’s production began with that old chestnut of an overture-filler, the composer struggling over the score. Eventually his klavier turns into a form of cage, and blissfully, Beethoven disappears from view. The rest of the production is unoffensive; Medcalf brings the time forward from 16th century to Napoleonic Spain – a very sensible updating given the text’s origins in the Reign of Terror – and confines the action to a large wood-panelled room. At the end, alas, Florestan sticks on a blue coat, resumes the role of Beethoven and happily indicates the end of his writer’s block with the illusory Leonore smiling benignly, but unobtainably upon him – marriage to a good wife an inspiration, but never a reality for the lonely Beethoven.

The singing was generally satisfactory, in several cases superb. Scott Wilde’s Rocco was a pleasure to hear; Wilde deployed a full, round bass with plenty of colour which dominated most scenes in which he appeared. There is a lyrical quality to the voice, which combined with a decent sense of phrasing makes it very appealing. Kirstin Sharpin is a singer I’ve come to know primarily through her performances of early 19th-century German opera and Leonore was in many respects an ideal role for her. Sharpin sang with a warm voice that has a tendency to bloom in mid-flow rather attractively. It’s a big voice, but there’s plenty of delicacy and her diminuendi were superbly done. Diction was generally fine, but she struggled badly with the coloratura aspect in “Ach brich noch nicht, du mattes Herz!”.

Kristy Swift took some time to warm up as Marzelline, a character with more substance in this earlier version of the opera. Bright and light, Swift’s voice lacked size, but had plenty of fizz. As she warmed up, she made a couple of forays towards the top of the voice, but generally seemed more comfortable in the high-middle. Her stage manner was spot on – coy and playful at times, earnest and moving at others.

Hrólfur Sæmundsson gave a pantomime Don Pizarro, both dramatically and vocally; he had a tendency for shouting rather than singing, and was generally far too declamatory. Tenor Stuart Laing singing Jacquino was perfectly serviceable vocally and gave a good comic turn as the ardent ex-flame of Marzelline, grabbing and groping in frustration. David Danholt had all too little to sing, but gave a pellucid Florestan with a light cream tone and a clear sense of line. Bass-baritone Jonathan Best’s Don Fernando was authoritative, but his voice was slightly too muggy and constrained for my liking.

Stephen Barlow drew mixed playing in the pit from the Northern Chamber Orchestra; on the whole, tempi were fairly well-judged, though there were moments in the overture and the first act where a little more dynamism was warranted. The score is demanding and while there were fluffs scattered throughout the performance, most noticeably in the violins and brass, there were also moments of exceptional playing, particularly from the woodwind. The Buxton Festival Chorus sang with gusto; not the most polished group, but its enthusiasm cannot be faulted.

Without artists like Barlow and Medcalf making the case for the obscure, a number of fine works would never see the light of day. I disagree with their opinion on Leonore, but to hear it is to gain a greater understanding of Fidelio’s troubled labour – for that, we must be grateful to them.