Leonore is the first version of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Stephen Medcalf thinks it’s better. ‘What Leonore gives us is more discursive but more dramatic,’ he declares in the programme of this Buxton Festival production. Well he would, wouldn’t he? He’s the director. You’d hope he’d have some faith in the piece. And what’s undeniable is that with Leonore you get more Beethoven for your buck than in Fidelio. True, there’s no ‘Abscheulicher!’ and no glowing declaration of universal brotherhood from the Minister. But if you’ve ever wished that Beethoven had given us a bit less of all that freedom and humanity stuff and a bit more romantic comedy, Leonore is the version for you, as Beethoven spreads Marzelline, Fidelio and Jacquino’s ditzy domestic love triangle over two leisurely acts.
To be fair, the differences extend throughout the work. Fidelio, in the increasingly rare event of an adequate production, can feel like being caught in a tractor beam, with everything pulling towards the exultant sunlight of Beethoven’s final scene. The finale of Leonore is less stable both in pace and tone, with a revolutionary mob storming the prison and demanding Pizarro’s blood. And those rambling domestic scenes do shift the overall focus of the piece to something closer to its original subtitle, The Triumph of Married Love. Perhaps with pacier direction — in the dialogue-heavy first two acts, at any rate — Leonore might emerge in its own right as the more ambiguous, more richly characterised work Medcalf describes.
The designs, by Francis O’Connor, place the action at the time of composition. That’s logical, and those Napoleonic tailcoats certainly look handsome. But having gone for realism, Medcalf’s occasional flashes of artifice are unsettling: the ensemble suddenly holding position and singing ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ as if in freeze-frame, or Hrolfur Sæmundsson’s growling Pizarro forcing his soldiers into a faintly kinky blood-brotherhood ritual.