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Uplifting thrills

31 May 2006

4:53 PM

31 May 2006

4:53 PM

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Fidelio, Beethoven’s simple and sublime opera, presupposes a belief in a set of values and their connection with action which it is hard for most of us to accept, possibly even to take seriously. Yet a great performance of Fidelio is inspiring enough to make you reconsider your scepticism, and that is what we had at the Barbican last week, in concert, with distinguished soloists and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Colin Davis. He has always been a great exponent of the opera, and it’s odd that he has never before recorded it — these two performances will yield a recording on the LSO’s own label.

An odd thing is that seven months ago there was a concert performance, also in the Barbican, with largely excellent forces, including the same wonderful singer, Christine Brewer, in the title role, and Charles Mackerras conducting, which was lively but to me (though it was received with wild enthusiasm) mainly unaffecting. Davis also conducted a lively, though broader performance, but one which went far deeper, and turned thrills into profound feelings. With his curious stirring and even excavating motions, as well as Lennie-style leaps, he does seem to get to the core of Beethoven’s elemental drama. With all its excitement — entirely musically generated, the plot is a non-event — underlying Fidelio is a monumental fervour, and for the first time in many years this performance enabled me to feel that.

The line-up of soloists was good without being outstanding, with the exception of Brewer, who has the only great heroic soprano voice of our time, rich and warm, but also gleaming and surprisingly agile. The stretches of coloratura which she has to negotiate in her great aria, and the devilishly awkward contours of the duet in which she celebrates saving Florestan, caused her no problems. He, the Canadian John Mac Master, is a tolerable tenor,  traditional in appearance but without the big vocal guns which might justify or excuse that. Andrew Kennedy made a Jaquino attractive of voice but tiresome in mannerism, and Sally Matthews is one of those Marzellines you can tell is going to be a Leonore quite soon; she brought admirable dramatic force to the role — Davis gave the younger, lighter pair more weight than normal without overdoing it. In the bass-baritone department, as usual Scandinavia was to the fore, with full-blooded results. The dialogue, every gauche word of which is treasurable, was intimate and urgent. It was a magnificent and uplifting occasion.

The Mariinsky Theatre Opera was in residence last week at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, and I caught two of its operatic performances, also in concert form, of course, but perhaps best described as ‘gestured’. At their worst Russian singers still wave their arms in absurd and by-number ways, but that  didn’t happen at all in Eugene Onegin, a quite marvellous account of Tchaikovsky’s moving but fragile opera. Hard to know where to start praising, though without the vigorous and alert conducting of Valery Gergiev it would certainly not have been so intense and concentrated, and this in a work that can often seem to be too much scene-setting and not enough plot.

The orchestra played to overwhelming effect, the weeping violins before Tatyana’s letter scene egging on Irina Mataeva to give the greatest account of it I have ever been present at. She acts with restraint but without inhibition, and I shall not forget the look of desolation with which she greeted Onegin’s cold rebuff. Above all, she sings with freedom, never showing a sign of a wobble, Slavic or otherwise — in fact that seems to have been wholly purged from the company; and with inwardness. But then it was no surprise that a Russian cast made this opera sound so much more significant than the international casts we usually hear. The Lensky of Evgeny Akimov, looking less impressive, produced streams of liquid, passionate tone, and made this wimpish character nearly sympathetic. That couldn’t happen to Onegin himself, but Alexander Gergalov at least made him dignified. Nothing can make the final scene, in which Onegin presses Tatyana to come to him, anything other than musically factitious, though the dramatic situation is strong. Gennady Bezzubenkov was a great Gremin, with bottom notes to take home with you and savour.

Gergiev favours the first, 1862 version of Verdi’s preposterously melodramatic La Forza del destino, which ends, in the words of the first edition of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book, with ‘Don Alvaro, seeing a nearby cliff, hurls himself over it’. Poor Alvaro was another very fine tenor, Avgust Amonov, though his arch-enemy Carlos (Vasily Gerello) was still more imposing, in fact the most magnificent baritone I have heard for a long time — can’t these people visit us more often? The central female role of Leonora was less satisfactorily taken by Irina Gordei, a gusty and noisy singer, who very occasionally floated an exquisite hushed top note, but mainly sounded as her wild gesticulations looked. Gergiev again conducted with passion, and everyone on stage seemed galvanised by him as they invariably do. With a predominantly young orchestra and chorus, and singers most of whom look to be in their early thirties, this is without doubt the most thrilling opera company in the world.    

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