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22 October 2005


By Ludwig van Beethoven

Libretto: Joseph Sonnleith- ner & Friedrich Treitschke, based on the play Leonore by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly

Performers: Christa Ludwig (Leonore), Jon Vickers (Florestan), Gottlob Frick (Rocco), Walter Berry (Don Pizarro), and Ingeborg Hallstein (Marzelline); Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, 1962

Want to know the plot? Click here.

Apparently I lied when I said I was taking a break from opera until we go see Tosca in November. This will be the second I've listened to since that post, and I have Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) ready and waiting for me at the library. I'm getting seriously addicted to these things...

Ok, now to Fidelio. This opera is highly unusual when compared to the prettier, melismatic Italian works I have heard by the likes of Verdi and Puccini. First, the recitative is almost non-existent. Instead of sing-song speaking parts flowly gently into songs and arias, Beethoven's handling of the spoken words is brusque. Dialogue is completly unaccompanied. Then singing! Then dialogue. Then singing! This is hardly a work of gently flowing scenes.

However, that said, the opera as a whole was incredible. Perhaps because I am a relative newcomer to opera, the break with traditional form did not strike me as damaging to the overall narrative or thrust of the story. The libretto is heavy-handed (to be kind), but with Beethoven's music, the words and music come together in a resplendent festival of harmony and musical symbolism.

Because the German language is not replete with a near-endless selection of rhyming words (as is Italian, for example) the rhymes stood out more forcefully (more like in English). Also, because the language is comprised of harsh syllables and strident consonants, the opportunity for singers to over-indulge their prowess for bel canto melisma is limited. As did Beethoven when he composed the work, the singers have to follow the rules of the German language. Therefore a number such as "No. 3 Quartet" becomes a festival of crisp, highly discernable harmonies. Two of the parts read as follows:

Mir ist so wunderbar.
Es engt das Herz mir ein!
Er liebt mich, es ist klar.
Ich werde glücklich sein!

Wie groß ist die Gefahr,
Wie schwach der Hoffnung Schein!
Sie liebt mich, es ist klar.
O namenlose Pein!

So strange I feel.
my heart is gripped!
He loves me, it is clear.
I shall be happy!

How great is the danger.
How weak the ray of hope!
She loves me, it is clear.
O nameless pain!
- English translation by Willian Mann, 1971

The sharply accentuated syllables made for sharply accentuated harmonic groupings, as opposed to the potential for muddy, garbled, over-wrought over-singing in Italian language works. I enjoyed this noticeable, refreshing difference.

As for musical symbolism, I cannot take credit for this next observation (it was in the liner notes). The trombones only arrived when a character spoke of the grave intended for Florestan. At one point, when Don Pizarro is in the middle of an aria about how dastardly he is, the trombones entered - and I thought it was a woman singing suddenly. The notes were so clear, so high, and so powerfully harmonized that I mistook the instruments for a human voice. Brilliant. (It reminded me of The Edge and a saxophone in "Corpse".) Also, the ominous, plodding, brooding basses in "No. 12 Melodrama and Duet" gave me goose bumps like in a horror film. The setting - a deep dungeon well - was convincingly portrayed by the trembling resonance of the score.

Christa Ludwig, an opera superstar from the mid-20th century who I only just encountered here, was masterful. Her mezzo was bold and powerful without being overly florid or sappy. Leonore is a strong character, and Ludwig's performance reflected this unsentimental strength. Interestingly, she was married to Walter Berry during this performance - the heroine and her husband, the villain! Jon Vickers performed Florestan with a smooth, seductively straight-forward magic, one devoid of the pretensions and super-star theatrics audible in more modern tenors.

And, in the end, this was the first opera I've listened to that has a happy ending. The finale is big, happy, loud, complex, funny and gorgeous. Beethoven may not have been a master of theater (this was his only opera, re- written three times over almost a decade), but he's BEETHOVEN. And Fidelio did not disappoint.

Blogger Mircalla said...

Although I nearly dislike opera, I read and enjoy your reviews. I especially like how you describe the different languages. I am simply not able to appreciate it, I think. And I can't understand why people love it so much. I find the plots boring and predictable, the recitative or dialogues embarassing and the costumes horrific. I do like the music--I like to listen to classical music, sometimes. Other times it is too penetrating and upsetting for my unstable mood, particularly Beethoven's dramatic peaks. The only thing I really admire is the virtuosismo (thus, the talent) of an opera singer (Maria Callas a gorgeous artist, for example).

When I was 14 I got the opportunity to go on a trip (organised by my dad's company) to Vienna and Salzburg in occasion of the bicentenary of Mozart's death. We were all teenagers, from all over Italy. None of us was remotely fond of opera or classical music. I was at my first year of my scientific school and barely knew Mozart. The schedule contemplated one performance a day (for one week) in gorgeous theatres or palaces' rooms. The night Le nozze di Figaro was shown (in a puppet theatre style), we all fell asleep after the first half. How funny! Eight years later in Berlin I saw the same piece performed in a circus (!) mingling in an experimental fashion classical music and Berliner electronic music. Very interesting, especially considering how the violin's strident sound can be *close* to the electric guitar's sound, although not in principle.

I don't know whether you are interested in all I have said, but this is all I've got to say about opera.
Here you go: a dyametrical view on the matter from a profane. :o )

Oh, and last year I went to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (http://www.royalopera.org/) for politeness to my friend and her friend, who is an opera singer. I was frantic in the second half: I just wanted to get out of there. Instead, not only we stayed till the end, but we also had to wait for the leading singer to get an autograph. Gosh. The last part was the more entertaining.

Blogger Mircalla said...

oh gosh, I wrote a post to a post!

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Don't worry - opera is an acquired taste, or at least it was for me. I listened to a lecture series just because the library had it and I wanted to consider myself well-educated in various types of arts. After I finished the series, I started to listen to full pieces and got hooked :)

Blogger Zeno said...

How fortunate you are to have discovered Christa Ludwig, a mezzo with an amazing range and a rich, earthy voice. I've been listening to her a lot recently, having loaded the Wunderlich/Ludwig performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde into my mp3 player. I regret that I never got to see her perform in person. Although I had a ticket when she was cast as Klytemnestra in Strauss's Elektra in San Francisco, she cancelled.

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

The Elektra I want to listen to in the near future (listed with the other operas in my sidebar) features Ludwig - glad to know it will be a performance to look forward to!

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