Last week's key word was Freude*, Joy, this week, Freiheit, Freedom, both of them redolent of Enlightenment idealism.
It does not require the presence of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, nor a performance with a narration written by the late Edward Said (the orchestra's co-founder) to underline the universal relevance of the message.
For those that don't know, 'Fidelio' is the name Leonore adopts to work under-cover in a prison where she believes her husband Florestan is held as a political prisoner. The prison governor, his political enemy, wishes Florestan killed. Leonore finds him deep in the dungeon and they are reunited, however briefly; the King's Minister arrives and orders the release of the political prisoners.
Reading Twitter after the event, the use of the narrative, delivered by Waltraud Meier, was not popular. I liked that it was succinct, and, in the absence of any staging, it made a lot of sense to do away with the dialogue, which, even when fully staged, detracts from my appreciation of the work. There was criticism that while the opera was sung in German, the narration was spoken in English. Although I sympathise with those who find this inconsistent, again, for me, it worked
This performance had been a hot tip/hot ticket for this year's season. I was eager to hear Waltraud Meier who does not appear often in London - the last time heard her here was in Die Walküre four years ago; I did also her as Sieglinde in Barcelona last year. This was the first time I have heard her live as anything but Sieglinde.
It took me a long time to become a Fidelio fan, although not for want of trying, but I think the effort has been worthwhile. I first saw it many years ago, as an Opera North production in Nottingham. I have a CD, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and with Waltraud Meier too, but despite an extraordinarily strong cast, this has never really caught my imagination. A splendid concert performance at the Barbican three years ago, under Colin Davis (not Haitink as I stated to several people on Saturday evening) really brought it to life for me; a lacklustre performance at ROH did not diminish my enthusiasm, and, as I wrote at length a while back, there are some decent complete performances available.
I do not think that Saturday's performance will erase my memories of the Davis/LSO, also available on CD, but it was a glorious, enjoyable and worthwhile night. I could find little fault with the orchestra and was pleasantly surprised by Barenboim's shaping of the piece. The chorus was excellent - the combined BBC Singers and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir -although insufficiently large to fill the Albert Hall in the way that the LSO Chorus and ROH superb men's chorus had filled their respective venues in the key choral moments. But the Prisoners' Chorus was nevertheless a highlight
Waltraud Meier did not disappoint. Her spoken narration was precise in enunciation and warm in tone, and her singing was exquisite. Not the loudest of voices, I struggled sometimes to hear her above the orchestra, but that may have been a result of having the fifth seat in a four seat box ie located behind the curtain. She is compelling on stage and she was particularly impressive in her great aria and in duet with Adriana Kučerová as Marzelline. However, overall I did not find her Leonore to be the match of her Sieglinde, a role in which she reigns supreme.
Adriana aside - she sang with a brilliant and clear voice - the lesser roles were at best functional, and largely uninspiring. Which leaves the two other stand out performers as John Tomlinson and Simon O'Neill. I know several people who actively dislike Sir John, even calling him Shouting John Tom. I can understand why, but the lack of lyricism in his voice is more than compensated by his dramatic interpretation. In a concert performance this is largely dependent on vocal drama and he did not disappoint. By and large I failed to get much sense of the actual characters of the protagonists but John's Rocco was convincingly a petty functionary who would trim and bow to the whims of whoever.
I was curious about Simon O'Neill because I have never heard him live, and I am not sure I have heard much recorded either, so I really didn't know what to expect. I enjoyed his answers provided in a Q&A.
Regular readers will know that, in general, most operas stand and fall on the tenor role. But Florestan is a curious role, in that he does not appear until the second half. But what a way to appear!
What a fabulous aria. A couple of my favourite versions are on YouTube - Plácido (blimey, I've forgotten I uploaded that) and Jonas. It seems incredibly difficult to sing, but when the tenor ets it right, it sounds stupendous.
And I will give high marks to Simon O'Neill. What a voice! To my ears a real heldentenor, lots of colour at the bottom and rising to a (more-or-less) confident high; where there were sounds of strain, I believe that this was the intention of the composer to emphasise Florestan's torment in one of opera's great Mad Scenes.
He has a real steel to his voice and reaches out to the audience, even if he didn't characterise particularly well. And he looks somewhat awkward in the way he holds his head as he sings. I definitely want to hear him again. I have to be honest because he is inhabiting similar parts of the repertoire as Plácido and Jonas, he would not be my first choice in those roles. But hey, the more glorious heldentenors the better. Just a small note of trivia, he hails from the same small town in New Zealand as does my nephew!
The opera finished with a barnstormer of a finale, bringing an excellent and memorable evening almost to a close.