BEETHOVEN: Leonore / Nathalie Paulin, sop (Leonore/Fidelio); Pascale Beaudin, sop (Marzelline); Jean-Michel Richer, ten (Florestan); Keven Geddes, ten (Jacquino); Stephen Hegedus, bs (Rocco); Matthew Scollin, bar (Don Pizarro); Alexandre Sylvestre, bar (Don Fernando); Opera Lafayette Chorus & Orch.; Ryan Brown, cond; Oriol Thomas, dir / Naxos DVD 2.110674 (live: New York, March 2-4, 2020)
Despite its French-sounding name, Opera Lafayette is a Washington, D.C.-based company founded and directed by Ryan Brown in 1995 that specializes in forgotten operas, primarily French ones of the 17th and 18th century. This production of the 1805 version of Beethoven’s Leonore was given just before the Coronavirus pandemic hit America like a tsunami.
I wanted to see this production simply to see how well (or not well) this early version of Fidelio worked on the stage. Since the costumes looked sort of like modified Hollywood versions of 19th-century garb, I thought I’d take a chance not knowing what the actual production would look like. As it turned out, the sets were neither good nor bad, just kind of minimalist-junky looking, as if they were knocked together in a couple of hours by a few bored carpenters. In the opening scene, for instance, there are a couple of large wooden frame things on the stage. Marzelline sings in front of them while Jacquino, making his entrance, keeps stepping over this one piece of wood instead of, more sensibly, walking around it.
The 1804 production of Leonore opens with dialogue that leads into the familiar opening duet between Marzelline and Jacquino. In this 1805 revision, however, we hear an opening monologue from the soprano who then launches into Marzelline’s familiar aria, only with a few altered notes, then Jacquino enters, speaks a few lines, and goes into the duet with Marzelline. Actually, I thought this worked better from a dramatic standpoint as it establishes Marzelline and her deep love for Fidelio before Jacquino tries unsuccessfully to woo her back. Since there are moments even during his monologue where someone knocks at the door and he has to go answer it, they make some fun out of the “knocking” motif in the orchestra during the duet which keeps interrupting Jacquino’s professions of love and proposal of marriage. This, too, made more sense to me. Several of the other anomalies between Leonore and Fidelio I described in my review of the Herbert Blomstedt recording of the opera as included in Naxos’ “Beethoven Complete Edition.”
The singers are a bit of a mixed bag, as I expected. Our Marzelline, Pascale Beaudin, has a bright but somewhat edgy soprano voice with a prominent French vibrato. Keven Geddes, our Jacquino, is a hefty young lad with an attractive timbre but an uneven flutter in the mid-range. Stephen Hegedus as Rocco has a rich-sounding basso cantata voice but also an incipient wobble (though he improves greatly by the time of the Don Pizarro-Rocco duet); he also looks like Marzelline’s brother rather than her father. (As long as they spent so little on the sets, you’d think the makeup person could have artificially aged him a couple of extra decades.) He’s also not much of an actor, looking bored throughout.
As for the conducting, I was not impressed by the stiffly-phrased and emotionally underpowered rendition of the Leonore Overture No. 2, but in all fairness Brown doesn’t conduct it any worse than John Eliot Gardiner on his recording of the opera. The best performances I’ve heard of this overture are the old recordings by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and Otto Klemperer, and of those only the Klemperer is in stereo. Happily, Brown’s conducting perks up considerably once the opera proper begins.
As in the Blomstedt recording, this version includes the Rocco-Marzelline-Jacquino trio that was later deleted. It’s nice music but kind of holds up the action. The whiny straight-tone strings rob “Mir ist so wunderbar” of its beauty and dignity, but the singing is pretty good. Conductor Brown makes a mistake by slightly increasing the tempo when Rocco enters; I don’t want to hear this quartet as a race to the finish. From a technical standpoint, the visual quality of this DVD is a bit dark and the audio quality somewhat too bright up top, but it gets by.
Our Fidelio/Leonore, Nathalie Paulin, has a good voice with a quick but even vibrato, she sings with great feeling and is a fine actress, but it’s not the kind of cannon-sized voice that most older opera listeners might expect. Of course, one must realize that no such soprano voices existed in Beethoven’s time; a good-sized lyric soprano with some “bite” in the tone was pretty much the best he could have hoped for. (I seriously doubt that modern audiences would be greatly impressed by Wilhelmina Schröder-Devrient, the most famous Leonore of her day.) She is also a highly expressive singer, on a par with Karita Mattila.
Matthew Scollin, as Don Pizarro, looks a little like young John Cleese but is an excellent villain with a scowl on his face and a dark, menacing (but also somewhat infirm) baritone voice. Pizarro is the one stereotypical figure in the opera; it would have been nice had Beethoven written his music a bit subtler, but he’s a real over-the-top villain with a capital V and that’s how you’re supposed to play him. Let’s put it this way: this is not a guy you feel that you’d like to hang out with over a few beers.
Following the Pizarro-Rocco duet comes one of Beethoven’s biggest blunders, a duet in waltz time between the two sopranos (Marzelline and Leonore). To be fair, Paulin and Beaudin make more of it than in the Blomstedt recording, and it’s taken at a somewhat zippier tempo, but it’s still a mood-killer, not to mention superfluous dramatically. How much more effective for the end of the Rocco-Pizarro duet to go straight into the opening of the “Abscheulischer”…but then, that opening music of Leonore’s aria didn’t exist in 1806 either. What we get instead is a slower, softer opening section that lacks tension, though again Paulin sings it with great feeling. When we reach the “Komm, Hoffnung” section we are on more familiar ground, but even here the music changes in a different direction that is musically interesting but a bit too florid, again robbing the moment of drama (no fault of Paulin’s).
I also felt that Brown rushed through the orchestral introduction to “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” too much, even faster than Toscanini who was too fast as well. Our Florestan, Michel Richer, is simply awful, with a loose, uneven vibrato you could drive a truck through. Tell me, honestly: where do they find these singers? And don’t tell me there aren’t better ones around, because there are. I’ve heard them. So what exactly recommended this Richer guy to Opera Lafayette? He works cheaply? His mom donated seed money to the company? What? After the first two minutes, I just skipped the rest of his aria. It’s that awful. Well, at least he sounds like someone who’s being starved to death and, for whatever reason, his voice finally clicks into focus for the final scene, too late for comfort.
One unintentionally funny moment: when Leonore reaches in her pocket to pull out her pistol, it gets stuck in her pocket. Poor Paulin! The Leonore-Florestan duet in this version is much longer than in the revised version, which just jumps into “O namenlöse freude,” and the slow introductory section, though to my mind a little too long, should have been retained in the finished version of the opera. Our Don Fernando also begins singing with a wobble, but miraculously his voice clicks into focus by the final scene.
My final verdict is that this early version of Fidelio has a few good moments that should have been incorporated into the final version, but by and large Beethoven improved it considerably. It’s interesting to see, unevenly sung and mostly conducted well except for those two annoying accelerations in the quartet and the intro to Florestan’s aria. Worth seeing and hearing for Paulin’s interpretation of the title character, however.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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