The Guardian, 22 August 2010
Fiona Maddocks
Beethoven: Fidelio, Lucerne, 15. August 2010
Lucerne festival
Fringed by dozens of tiny flickering night-lights, the stage of Lucerne's sleek white lakeside concert hall was transformed last weekend into a grey, shambolic dungeon for a semi-staging of Fidelio, conducted by Claudio Abbado with his elite Lucerne Festival Orchestra and a dream line-up of soloists led by Nina Stemme and that most serious of star tenors, Jonas Kaufmann.

Beethoven's opera about political freedom and conjugal love was the opening event of the five-week Lucerne festival, given in two performances. I heard the second. The less said about Tatjana Gürbaca's hastily assembled staging, in which prison shirts covered the area behind the orchestra in pale imitation of Christo's Wrapped Reichstag, and the performers came and went without logic, the better. The make-believe candles, twinkling at the string players' feet and behind the conductor's podium, were the best bit.

All that mattered was the music, and the miracles achieved by Abbado, 77, his frail health making each public appearance more precious. A decade ago, after enduring a medical catastrophe, it seemed unlikely that he would ever step on a concert platform again. Now, tanned and wiry, if gracile, with his physician comfortingly nearby in the stalls, he wastes no energy on extravagant gesture. Not that he was ever a thrasher or waggler in the way of some. He barely leans forward to command his players, instead quietly beckoning to an instrument, or exerting the smallest pressure, like gentle kneading, to express a forte or an accented note. His entire repertoire of movements could be contained within an outstretched pair of arms.

With this particular orchestra, he scarcely needs to steer or urge, only to ignite. Founded by Abbado and the festival's director, Michael Haefliger, and now in its eighth season, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra comprises the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and a glitter of top soloists, chamber and world-class orchestral musicians who give up their summer break for the pleasure of working with Abbado. The results scorch the ears.

The fraught history of Beethoven's only opera, a discussion for another place, has left myriad questions open, starting with the choice of overture. Abbado opted for the short, ebullient one named "Fidelio", the rallying opening statement punched out with verve and zestful authority. It set a faster pace than materialised in the broad tempo of the rest of the performance, with the great Act I quartet deliberately unhurried. This exposed some vocal dryness in Marzelline (Rachel Harnisch), but allowed the masterly violas and cellos time to glory, without indulgence, in the introductory bars.

The Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whose Isolde has thrilled British audiences at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, made her debut in the title role, her voice potent and lustrous as ever. It's a pity she doesn't yet feel confident without a score, copies of which had to be hidden on lecterns none too effectively draped with jailbird rags and used by all the cast except Kaufmann. Stemme will know it by the time she sings the role in London next spring.

Kaufmann's Act 2 opening utterance, from the depths of Pizarro's dungeon, was extraordinary: a black, guttural groan which grew into pure fortissimo gold. He moved through his aria, from despair, to imagined joy, to grief once more, with absolute control and emotional conviction. This German repertoire, which features on his disc of arias conducted by Abbado, is his natural aesthetic terrain. But how had no one noticed that his luxury Swiss watch (as advertised in full-page splendour in the programme) would sparkle and dazzle under the stage lights?

This faux pas nearly ruined the moment of marital reunion, as if Leonora had found not her half-starved, near-dead incarcerated husband but the Holy Grail itself – not inappropriate, perhaps, since Kaufmann had made a quick dash to Lucerne from Bayreuth, where he is singing Wagner's Arthurian swan-knight, Lohengrin, who wears pretty much the same casual shirt and trousers as Florestan here, but nothing so swanky as a wristwatch.

Gürbaca's reworking of the spoken text fared little better than her woeful staging. But the musicians worked ferociously to compensate, as a forthcoming Decca recording should confirm. The biggest cheers were for Abbado. A gaggle of Abbadianis – signed up members of Claudio's fan club – were out in force, stoning their hero in the nicest possible way with flowers tossed like a burst of coloured meteorites from high balconies.

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