Not just Fidelio-lite – the real Leonore at the Buxton Festival

Planet Hugill by Robert Hugill

Not just Fidelio-lite – the real Leonore at the Buxton Festival

4 stars

The Buxton Festival opened on 8 July 2017 at Buxton Opera House with a real rarity, Beethoven’s Leonore (the original 1805 version of the opera which would become Fidelio in 1814). Directed by Stephen Medcalf with designs by Francis O’Connor and lighting by Simon Corder, the opera featured Kirstin Sharpin as Leonore, David Danholt as Florestan, Scott Wilde as Rocco, Kristy Swift as Marzelline, Stuart Laing as Jacquino, Hrolfur Saemundsson as Don Pizzaro, and Jonathan Best as Don Fernando. Stephen Barlow conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Beethoven wrote his opera Leonore in 1805 for the Theater an der Wien, inspired by the popularity in Vienna of the operas of Cherubini. Works like Cherubini’s Lodoiska and Les deux Journees with their themes of personal heroism and political realism linked to Beethoven’s own concerns in his middle period. And Cherubini’s use of spoken dialogue in a serious context link the works to the serious end of the German singspiel genre. The French source libretto for Leonore was originally in 1798 set by Pierre Gaveaux (who was the first Jason in Cherubini’s Medee). Beethoven’s opera was presented as Fidelio in order to prevent confusion with previous settings of the libretto, but Beethoven preferred the name Leonore.

It was political history, rather than perceptions of artistic value, which affected the reception of the opera. In 1805 Vienna was full of French troops thanks to Napoleon, so the audience was mainly French soldiers with a few of Beethoven’s friends. It lasted just three performances. Beethoven, uncharacteristically uncertain about his first opera, allowed himself to be persuaded that it was too long and a shortened version was performed in 1806. By the time he was asked to have the piece re-performed in 1814, thanks to his increasing reputation for orchestral and chamber music, he had extensively re-written the opera to become the Fidelio we know.

Leonore, in three acts, is a lot more leisurely and more consistently opera comique than Fidelio and the composer who kept springing to mind was Cherubini (a composer whom Beethoven admired). Leonore and Florestan are still closer to heroic archetypes than fully developed characters, but we see a lot more of Leonore’s interaction with the other characters, and the original version of the scene with Florestan, Leonore and Rocco (the opening of Act Three in this version) is a lot more conventionally operatic, allowing the characters to develop in the music. The principal beneficiaries of the greater leisureliness are Marzelline, Jacquino, Rocco and Don Pizzaro from whom we hear a great deal more.

The modern tendency to play Fidelio with little or no dialogue pushes the opera even further from opera comique and closer to the heroic ideal. By playing Leonore with a fairly substantial amount of dialogue we were able to appreciate the work’s real strengths in the combination of speech, aria, recitative and melodrama. Bravely but wisely the work was given in German, so we could appreciate how Beethoven’s music does have its origins in the German text.

Stephen Medcalf’s production was set in period, itself rather an unusual thing nowadays. However production wasn’t without directorial pensées, as during the overture and the finale there was a clear identification between Florestan and Leonore, and Beethoven and his muse Countess Josephine Deyn (with home Beethoven fell in love during the opera’s composition). But the main body of the work was presented with clarity and a detailed drama, and Medcalf took the work at its own leisurely pace, relishing the extra detail and never trying to make Leonore something that it is not. Francis O’Connor’s set was imaginative, a single unit which proved far more complex and innovative than appeared at first sight.

Kirstin Sharpin, who won the 8th International Competition for Wagner Voices, is a dramatic soprano in the making. She sang with a lovely clear bright sound which carried a nice sense of line with it. It helped that the Northern Chamber Orchestra fielded a good chamber sized orchestra (around 40 players) rather than a bigger symphonic line-up. Sharpin brought an appealing sense of personality to Leonore, creating a convincingly androgynous personality for Fidelio, and really convincing in Leonore’s conflicts between her duty to Florestan (David Danholt) and guilt at Marzelline’s (Kristy Swift) falling in love with her. The role is more complex, more virtuosic than the final version. The taxing passage-work in Komm Hoffnung (the first Leonore famously complained to Beethoven about his writing for voice) clearly pushed Sharpin to the limits, but overall she was a finely appealing Leonore with enough resources for the more heroic moments in Act Three. She and David Danholt brought a nicely heroic ping to ‘O namenlose Freude’, and nicely intensity to their duets.

If the role of Leonore is more virtuosic in Leonore then the role of Florestan is less so. His great prison scene is far less heroic, much more in keeping with the rest of the music. In Leonore there is no jolt, as in Fidelio, when you realise Beethoven is pushing the music into another realm; this happens more gradually here. Danholt was an ideal Florestan in this version of the opera, which means that he is perhaps currently a little light for Fidelio. He entered into the Beethoven/Florestan idea admirably and it is not his fault that I found the extended mime during the overture a little too much, frankly there is enough drama in the music to Leonore No. 2 overture. Danholt combined a nice heroic tang with the necessary litheness and flexibility needed for this. Having only one short act out of three, Danholt packed a lot of dramatic and musical punch. He combined admirably with Sharpin in their duets, combining the personal and the heroic.

Scott Wilde made an amiable Rocco, charming in his veniality and in this version we are able to get more detail from the dialogue and to appreciate Beethoven’s absorbing of the opera comique model in the way he writes ensembles for the characters. Acts One and Two are very much ensemble pieces, with not just the famous quartet but lots of other moments. Kristy Swift was a real charmer as Marzelline, fleshing out the character nicely and very appealing in her fickleness at moving from Jacquino to Fidelio. Swift’s voice used vibrato a little to much for my taste in this essentially soubrette role, but she was nicely stylish. Stuart Laing made an intense, yet personable Jacquino, but though we hear more from him his role is still virtually restricted to Act One. And though the finale is far more leisurely than in Fidelio with a tying up of loose ends, we never get to hear Jacquino and Marzelline’s reconciliation, though Swift and Laing made it clear dramatically.

We got to hear a lot more from Don Pizarro in this version, as has blusters his way angrily through the opera with some key solos, including an oath-taking with his men which concluded Act Two in spectacular fashion. Hrolfur Saemundsson sang well with the requisite facility in the taxing music, but his performance conveyed an essential amiability which seemed at odds with the character, or perhaps I was simply projecting the tighter, darker Don Pizzaro from Fidelio onto the earlier opera. Jonathan Best was luxury casting as Don Fernando, bringing the required gravitas to the extended finale.

The hard working chorus gave us some fine singing, and the men were suitably rousing in the Act Two finale oath-taking, as well as being striking in the prisoners scene. Medcalf’s production used the fact that the finale rather stretched resources in an imaginative manner by having the women dressed as guards and after Leonore’s bit reveal, showing themselves to be women too.

In the pit Stephen Barlow made it clear that it was Leonore he was conducting, and he and the orchestra relished the virtuosity and pace of this earlier version. Whilst overall the pacing was leisurely because of the dialogue, Barlow’s speeds in the arias and ensembles were geared to the lighter voices and the litheness of the orchestral sound. There was a nice period feel to the overall orchestral playing which was nice, and some lovely individual instrumental solos and I was particularly struck by the three horns in Kommm Hoffnung. It was good to hear the overture Leonore No. 2 in an operatic context for once, and Barlow’s performance with the Northern Chamber Orchestra admirably set the scene.

This was a great opportunity to re-evaluate Beethoven’s first thoughts in his only opera, and Buxton’s performance admirably presented us with the real Leonore rather than Fidelio-lite. Beethoven’s writing clearly pushed singers and players; lasting three hours with one 20 minute interval it required stamina as well as virtuosity. The cast all gave appealingly characterful performances, with a strong sense of the dialogue having been considered as much as the music.