The Ambiguity of 'Fidelio'
GIUSEPPE PENNISI was at the opening night
of La Scala's opera season
of La Scala's opera season
The opening night of La Scala's opera season is a major event, not only in Italy but internationally. It is scheduled every year on 7 December, St Ambrose Day, the patron of Milan. Prices are sky high: 2,000 euros per orchestra or box seat. Normally, the audience is largely made up of industrialists, financiers and guests from the top Italian cultural world, who are not all necessarily familiar with music or lyric theatre. The opera starts at 6pm and afterwards, three-hundred-and-fifty fortunate people are invited to dinner at the city's most exclusive club.
This year, the event was even more special. A new General Manager and Artistic Director, Alexander Periera, had just taken over his responsibilities at La Scala. Simultaneously, after nearly ten years, Daniel Barenboim was relinquishing his functions as principal conductor. When the curtain fell at 9pm, a twelve minute ovation was meant as a recognition to the artists but also as a welcome to Pereira and a good-bye to Barenboim.
Beethoven's Fidelio or Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe ('Leonora, or the Triumph of Married Love') was chosen as the inaugural title, with Barenboim in the pit and Deborah Warner as stage director. The sets and costumes were entrusted to Chloe Obolensky and the lighting to Jean Kalman. The opera had previously been selected three times for performance on St Ambrose night, under the musical directions of Karl Böhm, Leonard Bernstein and Riccardo Muti.
Fidelio is a very well known opera, so there is no need to summarize the plot. It took twelve years and three different versions to reach its final form in 1814. Thereafter, Gustav Mahler introduced the tradition of performing the colossal overture, generally called Leonore No 3, between Act II scenes 1 and 2, for two purposes: to provide time for a set change (from the depths of a dark prison to the sunny esplanade) and to give the two main singers a rest after their taxing G major duet.
Fidelio is also a rather ambiguous opera. It is a Singspiel where spoken drama alternates with musical numbers. The initial part is almost as light as a Mozart comedy. After the protagonist's recitative and aria Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?, it turns into a heroic and ethical tragedy (with a happy end) almost in the style of the imperial operas of Cherubini and Spontini.
Since the other main theme is liberty — along with married love — I expected that, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the heroic and ethical element would prevail. Deborah Warner sets the action in a dilapidated factory in the Eastern part of Germany (maybe, Thuringia), however, and places emphasis on the love affairs, while Daniel Barenboim conducts with his usual slow and expanded tempos, adding solemnity to an already grand score in the second part of the first act and throughout the second act.
To make Fidelio even more ambiguous, a number of changes have been made from typical productions. So instead of using the short overture composed by Beethoven for the last, and definitive, 1814 version of the opera, the longer and more heroic overture to the 1806 version (normally called Leonore No 2) is used.
In the second act there is no Leonore No 3, with the two main singers reaching the final concertato almost exhausted. Also, the spoken parts are performed without the customary cuts made when Fidelio is staged in non-German speaking lands. Finally, for the Berlin Wall anniversary, the final concertato takes place when red flags are being waved all over the stage.
The singers were of good standards, especially Kwangchul Youn (Rocco), Mojca Erdmann (Marzelline), Florian Hoffmann (Jaquino) and Peter Mattei (Don Fernando). Falk Struckmann (Don Pizzaro) is no longer the baritone he used to be.
And the protagonists? Klaus Florian Vogt (Florestan) is a lyric tenor spinto; he would have been perfect for Il Trovatore, but Fidelio requires a Wagnerian heldentenor. Skillfully, Anja Kampe (Leonore) saved her volume for the second act (but Barenboim covered her a few times with orchestral sound).