The Times, 17 August 2010
Beethoven: Fidelio, Lucerne, 12 August 2010
Lucerne festival
Somehow Claudio Abbado battles on
Every year he looks more gaunt and frail. Yet each summer he and his handpicked Lucerne Festival Orchestra produce another miracle of musicmaking. This year he chose Beethoven's opera to open Lucerne's five-week, star-packed festival. Oddly, he has not conducted it before, though you would never have guessed that.

After the most nerve-racking start — the second horn split his first note, and the first horn his second note — this quickly became one of those performances that make you feel as if you are understanding an old friend properly for the first time. The playing had such vivacity, rhythmic impetus, tonal beauty and clarity. But even more stunning was the drama that Abbado drew from his instrumentalists. So pungent and profuse was the orchestral detail that the singers seemed almost redundant. One felt that the band alone was capable of expressing all the idealism, terror, anger and hope that Beethoven poured into this work.

Which was just as well, because the semi-staged element was far less convincing. The young German director Tatjana Gürbaca dumped the spoken dialogue and substituted "old letters and diary items" devised by herself and read out by the singers. By doing this, apparently, they would "merge with their roles". Pretentious tosh, of course. Above the platform was what looked like a big white hot-air balloon that glowed hopefully at symbolic moments, but also turned into a giant winking eye during Florestan's aria.

That was especially irritating, because Jonas Kaufmann's thrillingly anguished delivery was the best singing of the night.
Nina Stemme was the Leonore: not yet totally assured but showing enough potential when she turned on the power to make one impatient to see her in the role at Covent Garden next season. Falk Struckmann's Pizarro was properly chilling, and Christof Fischesser sang Rocco with elegance. The only pallid performance came from the Marzelline, Rachel Harnisch, who lacked the tone or character to match this magnificent orchestra.

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