MILAN: Fidelio
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Teatro alla Scala

The dungeon scene in Act II of Fidelio is one of the most challenging to stage in all of opera: the realistic detail necessary to make Leonore’s daring rescue operation credible often seems to conflict with the spiritual needs of the music. Yet on December 10 at La Scala it was very much the highpoint of the performance. This was partly because director Deborah Warner and designer Chloe Obolensky seemed focused here on solving theatrical problems rather than annotating Beethoven’s score with their own platitudinous observations about the world we live in. Perhaps more significant to the scene’s success was the fact that Florestan was played by Jonas Kaufmann, who had flown in that afternoon to replace an ailing Klaus Florian Vogt on the second night of this season-opening production. Although Kaufmann was enveloped in total darkness when the act began, the sound of his voice — which swelled on the opening top G from a disembodied pianissimo to an awesome forte — was immediately arresting: both beautiful in itself and emotionally specific. Before we even saw Kaufmann’s Florestan, we were compelled to share his feelings.  When his face became increasingly visible during the adagio that followed, we were aware of a dignity of bearing, in spite of the physical suffering, that corresponded perfectly to the nobly shaped, somberly colored line of the melody. While in the testing tessitura of the concluding poco allegro, the Gs, As and B flat above the staff were dispatched with heartening fullness of tone, as were the soaring phrases of “O namenlose Freude!” later in the act. 

The courage and generosity of the tenor were well matched by Anja Kampe as Leonore. Although she is technically much less secure than Kaufmann — her highest notes are a bit of a gamble and there is a weak spot around the lower register break — Kampe’s voice maintains a youthful sheen throughout and responds to the music with impulsive spontaneity of feeling, highlighted by vivid diction. (She was as clear in spoken dialogue as in sung utterances.)  Kampe is indeed a winning actress: totally at ease in her male garb, yet charmingly vulnerable at the same time. And alongside these charismatic performers Falk Struckmann’s sturdy Pizarro and Kwangchul Youn’s warm-hearted Rocco contributed significantly to the success of the scene. 

The opening of Act I was very different in effect. Conductor Daniel Barenboim, in his final opera production as music director of the Milanese house, chose to perform the Leonore No.  2 Overture. He took a while to establish the necessary concentration of feeling in the opening bars but then achieved a totally convincing reading of impressive warmth and breadth. He obtained idiomatic sound from the Scala Orchestra, which seemed totally inside the opera from beginning to end. But there was no applause at the end of the overture, for the curtain was raised during the final bars to reveal a set of jarring banality — an abandoned factory serving presumably as a makeshift prison — upon which characters unimagined by the librettists Sonnleithner and Treitschke were apparently engaged in the commerce of drugs or some other surreptitious activity. Nothing could have been further, in visual terms, from the ethical tension of the great overture or the homely ingenuousness of the A major duet for Marzelline and Jaquino. Those roles were sung adequately, but not memorably, by Mojca Erdmann and Florian Hoffmann, whose voices seemed penalized acoustically by the deep, largely open, set. 

Many directors have set this opera in the twentieth or twenty-first century and succeeded in enriching the characters psychologically without betraying the spirit of the score. But Warner’s staging was full of superimposed glosses that seemed either irrelevant or irritating, often breaking the intense concentration that is built into the words and music (witness the undisciplined prison guards lounging around during Pizarro’s aria or the German Shepherd dogs paraded during the prisoner’s chorus) or limiting its universality with ideological underlinings (the red flags displayed during the final scene).  Peter Mattei brought genuine humanity of tone and utterance to Don Fernando, but the conclusion of the opera was spoilt by sentimental snowflakes (illogical in an opera set at the beginning of spring) and fussy business for Marzelline.  The applause at the end of the evening was sustained, however, for musically there had been much to enjoy. spacer 


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