There are those who claim that Beethoven’s Leonore is a better opera than the one it became nine years later, Fidelio!
He clearly wasn’t happy with it in 1805 because he swiftly and radically revised it, reducing its three acts to two in the process, before it was revived four months later, which in itself must say something!
Buxton Festival’s staging of the ‘first Fidelio’ plays the first two acts together creating one Wagnerian length act, preceded by the drawn out longuers of the overture we know as Leonore No 2.
The difference is that Wagner, or Richard Strauss for that matter could sustain interest over 105 minutes, Beethoven in 1805 couldn’t. Perhaps splitting the two acts would have helped, albeit making a long evening longer!
It was a brave decision to perform the opera in its original German, especially as there is so much spoken dialogue, but it also enables the music to be heard in its pure state without the vagaries of a sung translation – there are English side titles!
Musically, it gave the opera a chance under Stephen Barlow’s spacious reading of the score and the augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra’s exemplary playing of it.
The festival artistic director also knows where to find the right singers, particularly potential stars among younger generation artists and there were are at least three here, including two impressive embryo Wagnerian voices, Kirstin Sharpin and David Danholt.
Leonore and Florestan, respectively, the latter must have been longing to sing the final version of the character’s big act two – here act three – recit and aria, instead of Beethoven’s first, decidedly inferior forerunner of it.
Hrólfur Sæmundsson is a suitably imposing Pizarro, relishing his ‘extra’ music along with Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick! one of the two numbers that survived unscathed in Fidelio, the other being the Leonore/ Florestan duet O namenlose Freude.
Scott Wilde brings all his experience and a true black bass to bear as an urbane Rocco. Further young talent can be heard as Marzelline and Jacquino, Kristy Swift and Stuart Laing, while chorus work is terrific.
The staging is unusual in this day and age. Director Stephen Medcalf has left it as ‘Beethoven would have seen it’ – period-costumed! Well, not quite as he would have seen it perhaps!
He would have recognised himself in the ‘dumb show’ played out to the overture, but someone else can attempt to explain the metaphors, symbolism and bizarre happenings, such as Fidelio/ Leonore playing a violin as he duets with Marzelline, ladled on the production.