Sunday, 23 August 2009

Fidelio the drama doesn't end Beethoven Prom 50 Barenboim

The real horror of Fidelio is that there are still thousands of Florestans, all over the world, who will never be free. This isn't opera for "entertainment". Ten years ago it didn't seem possible that a project like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra could succeed, given the conflict it grew from. The situation hasn't changed, but the orchestra has thrived, against the odds. At the end, the standing ovation was a statement in itself, and that the ideals it embodies mean something to a lot of people.

"When we play we are making music" said Daniel Barenboim. But the very fact that these young people get together each summer is a act of faith, that people from all parts of the divide can be "side by side, not back to back".

The Prom started with by the Leonora 3 Overture which is often heard towards the end. The heroine, after all, is Leonore not Florestan. This reflects the subtle change of balance in this performance, which incorporated spoken narration written by the late, great Edward Said. Fundamentalists won't approve, but fundamentalists rarely like things that promote understanding. Leonore is sometimes considered "unstageable". The extra words help to clarify the plot, especially for those new to the opera, or to opera of any kind. This matters, because Beethoven's message is important, and should reach people who might not otherwise relate to opera. It also expands the character of Leonore, who doesn't sit passively but takes direct action. Leonore isn't the first forceful woman in opera, but she's a prototype of what women, and all those who love enough, can achieve.

At first, Waltraud Meier spoke the words directly: stunning drama, later dissipated because the rest was recorded. There are good practical reasons for this, since her singing is infinitely more important, and it would not do to use another woman's voice, so it isn't really much to quibble about. She's much smaller in person that the stunning presence her amazing singing would imply. Yet this too underlines how much Leonore achieves. She's an ordinary woman who stands up to tyranny. Meier naturally dominated proceedings. She sang with great feeling. No need for stylistic effects: her purpose here was to get the story across in a direct, personal way.

Said also makes thoughtful comments on Beethoven's first scene, drawing parallels with the plot and its relevance. "The four of us at cross-purposes, each scarcely able to comprehend one another, each bent on a different course. The wonder of it is that we were together in the same place and still I could see how painfully apart we were".

The other singing was more uneven. John Tomlinson's voice is showing its age, but in a way this, too, worked well for his characterization of Rocco, who has his rough edges. He's a priosn warden after all, not a subtle personality. Gerd Grochowski's Don Pizarro, on the other hand, was finely nuanced and convincing. He was a late replacement for Peter Mattei, but he's sung the role many times, and is good, so high-profile Proms coverage should give Grochowski the credit he deserves.

Adriana Kučerová was somewhat underpowered, but Marzelline is a slight, girlish personality, particularly in contrast to Meier's powerful Leonore. The role of Florestan on the other hand is far more important. There have been many good Florestans in the past, who make you realise why a Leonore would love him enough to try to save him. Simon O'Neill is good enough, but not particularly convincing. By the end of his big aria, he's shouting "Freiheit, Freiheit", rather than singing. It's the critical word in the whole piece and should be shaped so its beauty shines forth. Instead it comes over harsh and parched. True he's spent a long time chained up in a cell. Viktor Rud's Don Fernando was interesting enough that it should be interesting to hear how this young singer develops.

It's ludicrous to expect an orchestral performance of the standard of Barenboim's "other" orchestras, like Staatskapelle Berlin.These musicians meet once a year, in summer, and often don't have the resources youth orchestra players in wealthier countries take for granted. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra may not have fine polish but Fidelio isn't about surface gloss. Many of these players have personal knowledge of danger. Throughout the opera, the orchestral playing was characterized by a sense of immediacy. Much better to hear fervour well expressed than finesse without feeling. In any case, many of these players are very good. One went on to become Leader of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Each summer, Barenboim's "graduates" return to work with the younger members of the orchestra. This support is vital, not just in musical terms but because it passes on proof that effort produces results.

But ultimately, Fidelio is fantasy. In the real world, time and time again, Florestans die and Leonores are destroyed. That's another reason why Edward Said's words make a difference. His Leonore is looking back, wistfully, at a time long past. People who've know oppression at first hand often find representation in art unsatisfying. For example, many people are moved by the novel and film Empire of the Sun. Yet I know some who weep tears of rage."That kid had it too easy!" say those who lived through the events in real life. That's why I was dubious when someone staged Fidelio at Auschwitz a few years ago. Said's narration provides a sense of distance, which does make a difference.

"Could we remain free, and for how long ? The question still torments me" reads Meier at the very point Florestan is liberated in the opera. The point may be lost on audiences for whom Fidelio is no more than any other opera. But all over the world, freedom is a luxury few can take for granted. Opera goers can go home, feeling safe. Millions of others know all too well that a knock on the door can come at any time, and that those who are freed remain traumatized for the rest of their lives. Said's Leonore knows more than she's letting on. Of course this will be too pointed for the average audience, so the narration will never become standard. But on this anniversary of the founding of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, it was supremely important to hear Said's words ring out into the Royal Albert Hall and into the wider world. He may no longer be with us, but his presence endures.

"There was never a day like it before, or again......we were all united ...we were transported by nameless joy....And yet......Who were the other prisoners ? And what happened to them after Don Fernando had them released along with Florestan?"

Maybe most people won't get it, but for me it was a trenchant reminder that the drama doesn't stop when the music ends.

For full casting and details please see HERE

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