OPERA NEWS, April 2000
Beethoven: Fidelio, La Scala, Dezember 1999
Riccardo Muti has made something of a specialty of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century operas; he has recently performed cycles of Beethoven symphonies with the La Scala orchestra. So Fidelio was a natural choice to open the company's new season -- quite apart from the symbolic import of presenting it at the beginning of a new millennium. The performance seen on December 18 was to be appreciated above all for its stylistic uniformity. Seldom has the homely singspiel atmosphere of the opening scenes seemed so neatly wedded to the music drama that evolves out of it. Dialogue was kept to a minimum (there are no surtitles at La Scala), tempos were generally swift, and the music unravelled with well-oiled precision and carefully balanced sonorities (if one excepts the brassy overlay in the concluding section of the interpolated Leonore III Overture). It was not, however, a particularly involving or morally uplifting performance -- at least not until the final scene, where Stephen Millings proved a noble, imposing Fernando and Muti provided an appropriately sublime accompaniment to Leonore's "O Gott, welch'ein Augenblick." In Act I, the conductor had left the singers little room to project words colorfully, and his quest for ethereal sonorities in the quartet and at the beginning of "O welche Lust" (proficiently performed by the Scala chorus) proved more contrived than expressive.

Eva Lind as Marzelline and Jonas Kaufmann as Jaquino sang with somewhat bland accuracy, and Kurt Rydl's potentially ideal Rocco, though enjoyable, suffered from a lack of give-and-take with the conductor and the other singers. The promising lyric soprano Elizabeth Whitehouse sounded overwhelmed by the demands of Leonore. Although moments of strain on top and inaudibility lower down are common in this role, her identification with the character seemed insufficient to justify the vocal risks and compromises involved. Jan Vicick also has a relatively lightweight instrument, yet it was refreshing to hear such a youthful tenor as Florestan, and his phrasing in the dungeon scene gave genuine pleasure. The same cannot be said of the Pizarro of Franz-Josef Kapellmann, whose expressive intentions were undermined by crude voice production and dubious intonation.

None of the singers had been helped much by Werner Herzog's direction, which proved particularly insipid in the opening scene and spoiled the beginning of Act II by fussily bringing Florestan onstage by means of a manually operated elevator, as if Beethoven's orchestral introduction -- beautifully played by the Scala orchestra -- were not expressively self-sufficient. Franca Squarciapino's costumes seemed to set the action in the Napoleonic era, while Ezio Frigerio's massive set construction looked more neutral in temporal reference, allowing for a powerful evocation of the castle parade ground in Act I but often seeming out of proportion with the humanistic spirit of the music.

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