Opera News
Beethoven: Fidelio, Salzburger Festspiele, 4. August 2015
Florestan is the Harry Lime of opera. Like Orson Welles’s underworld character in Carol Reed’s 1949 film classic The Third Man, Florestan’s name is on everyone’s lips during act one of Fidelio. When we finally meet the character, more than halfway through Beethoven’s opera, he manages to steal the show in a matter of minutes, just as Harry Lime does. The difference, naturally, is that Florestan’s moment of introduction takes place in the dungeon of a prison in eighteenth-century Spain rather than at the Ferris wheel at the Prater — but Fidelio still needs a tenor to pull off Florestan’s anguished cries and fervent prayer with the same transformative conviction that Welles brought to Graham Greene’s mischievous dialogue.

This year, for its first new production of Fidelio in nearly two decades, the Salzburg Festival found just such a tenor in Jonas Kaufmann (seen Aug. 7). Kaufmann began his performance with a miraculously soft, sustained moan that slowly flowered into a fevered and magisterial cry of “Gott!” He made the word glow from within, its brittle texture gaining in force and solidity until the note hung majestically in the Festspielhaus. It was a spellbinding moment, as well as a highpoint in a festival that this year is once again presenting opera at a superlative level after last summer’s middling premieres of Don Giovanni and Der Rosenkavalier.

In the past, I’ve found Kaufmann’s thickly lacquered tenor, with its baritonal shadings, inappropriate for many of his roles. I was glad to find some brighter colorings in his recent performance as Des Grieux in Munich (in Hans Neuenfels’ bizarre new production of Manon Lescaut). That brightness was present in Fidelio during Floristan’s more rapturous moments, such as the ecstatic duet “O namenlose Freude.” And there was no arguing with Kaufmann’s intense emotionalism, even if his acting occasionally teetered on the edge of parody.

This hardly detracted, however, from an extremely expressive and committed performance of Fidelio, for which everyone involved deserved credit. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was an imposing and tireless Leonore. She hurled headfirst into “Abscheulicher,” with the same crackling energy that characterized the entire evening. Her voice was alternately angular and smooth as well as consistently plush. I did, however, miss that aria’s quieter, more reverent moments. But if her vocally accomplished performance lacked some subtlety, it was never less than exhilarating.

Ukrainian soprano Olga Bezsmertna, an ensemble member of the Wiener Staatsoper, nearly matched Pierzconka in vocal acumen and lyrical prowess as Marzelline. This was apparent early on from the sumptuous way in which the two women harmonized during “Mir ist so wunderbar,” the famous quartet that here became a wondrous slow burn. Aside from Kaufmann, the most impressive male performance of the evening was Hans-Peter König as the conflicted jailer Rocco. The German bass, who has amazed me recently as Gurnemanz and Philipp II in Berlin, sang with generosity and warmth, vividly bringing to life a fundamentally good man who has been forced to assist in despicable acts. The evening’s Jaquino was Norbert Ernst, another Wiener Staatsoper singer, who lent dignity and poise to a character who often comes across as a lightweight. Tomasz Konieczny, a Polish bass-baritone, was mostly effective as Don Pizarro, animating his character’s villainy with thunderous, crepuscular tones, although his lowest notes were often indistinct.

Guiding the singers every step of the way was Franz Welser-Möst, who whipped up the Wiener Philharmoniker into a frenzy for much of the evening. It was a dynamic, often lurching account played at high volume, which only added to the general verve and excitement in the Festspielhaus. Both conductor and orchestra received a thunderous mid-performance ovation for a furious rendition of the Leonore Overture No. 3 before the final scene.

The Salzburg audience was less generous to stage director Claus Guth, whose previous outing here was a wonderfully inventive forest-bound Don Giovanni in 2008. Here, the German Regietheater exponent excised the spoken recitatives and replaced them with an unsettling soundtrack of noises and sound effects, including whisperings, far-off artillery and whistling wind. These created a palpable sense of menace when combined with the monochromatic set and costume design by Christian Schmidt and stark lighting by Olaf Freese. For all the beauty of its music, the fragmentary nature of Fidelio robs it of dramatic momentum. Guth’s bold, unconventional strategy was effective, since the dramatic and emotional turmoil of the opera resides in the individual scenes and numbers rather than the work’s full arc.

Some of Guth’s other inspirations raised more questions than they answered. Why were Leonore and Pizarro shadowed by pantomime versions of themselves? And what exactly was Leonore’s shadow trying to communicate in her flurry of sign language? I’m not sure that answers to these questions exist, but these choices provided for arresting visuals that complimented the general austerity of the production.

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