Beethoven struggled mightily over the three versions — staged in 1804, 1806, and 1814 — of his only opera, Fidelio. imbuing its tale of daring rescue from a tyrant’s dungeon with music that embodied his own Enlightenment ideals of fidelity and heroic endurance. Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque presented Boston’s first production with period instruments of the third and final version of Fidelio at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday evening, April 13th, and again on Sunday afternoon, April 15th; this review is based on the Sunday afternoon performance. A sizable orchestra assembled on stage along with a strong cast of singers for the principal and secondary roles. Set designer Evan Streshinsky had transformed Jordan’s stage: the central doorway to the rear became a redoubtable prison gate, while projections overlaid the gilded organ façade with a menacing black grid. Under Mark Streshinsky’s canny direction, the soloists carried out the action on the extended stage apron with minimal props. Spoken dialogue was carried on in English; arias and choral numbers were sung in German with English supertitles. This may have been jarring to some, but seemed a reasonable compromise for an English-speaking audience.
In the overture to his final version of Fidelio, Beethoven abandoned the original C major opening for E major, the key of Leonore’s big Act I aria, “O Hoffnung” (O hope). An opening fanfare for full orchestra alternated with soft chords, Adagio, in the clarinets and horns. A rousing symphonic Allegro followed, then a brief return of the Adagio chords leading to a breakneck Presto conclusion. Mozartian lightness in the opening duet between Marzelline, the jailor’s daughter, and Jaquino, the turnkey, contrasted with the overture’s seriousness. Anna Christy’s bright and flexible soprano floated easily over the orchestra; her ardent suitor, the nimble tenor Andrew Stenson, was soon to be rejected in favor of the jailor’s new assistant Fidelio who is, of course, the prisoner Florestan’s faithful wife Leonore (soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer) in male disguise. Fidelio’s arrival set the scene for one of the opera’s most exquisite numbers, the quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” (What a strange feeling). In a series of staggered canonic entries, Marzelline, her jailer father Rocco, Fidelio, and Jaquino express their disparate hopes and fears. Here Beethoven paired a tuneful, yet rhythmically hesitant vocal theme with an orchestral accompaniment of increasing richness and intensity, a compositional tour de force that the Boston Baroque singers and orchestra carried off with nuance and finesse. Having already accepted Fidelio rather than Jaquino as his future son-in-law, Nathan Stark as Rocco delivered his warning on the importance of money (gold) to marital happiness in a resonant basso buffo of seemingly inexhaustible power. In another finely performed ensemble, the trio for Marzelline, Fidelio, and Rocco, Wendy Bryn Harmer revealed a dramatically focused soprano of power and depth in outbursts of heroic determination that stood out from the surrounding vocal and orchestral fabric.
To the accompaniment of a rousing march, the villain Don Pizarro arrived on the scene. The embodiment of swaggering evil, he declared his intent to kill his imprisoned enemy Florestan with his own hands. Baritone Mark Walters executed the wide leaps and exaggerated dynamic contrasts typical of “revenge” arias with fearless energy. Having overheard Pizarro’s plot, Fidelio launched into a big scena of heroic power that displayed Harmer’s full expressive range. First, a dramatic accompanied recitative, Allegro, a series of wide-ranging outbursts punctuated by brief orchestral interjections, then a gentle Andante, “Komm, Hoffnung” (Come, Hope), with bassoon and horns obbligato, followed by a fast and resolute final section. The Finale of Act I began with another deeply moving scene: the emergence of the prisoners (with the exception of Florestan and others in the deepest dungeon), who are to be allowed a brief walk in the open air. Beginning pianissimo on the words “O welche Lust” (O what a pleasure), the four-part male chorus gradually soared to fortissimo before the return of Pizarro, who ordered them back to their cells.
Act II opened in the subterranean dungeon, where a ragged and exhausted Florestan was found chained in darkness. Opening in the funereal key of F minor, traditionally employed in opera for sinister ombra scenes, an introductory Sinfonia combined insistent knocking in the strings and dissonant shrieks in the winds and brasses with subdued rumbles in the timpani, tuned to a sinister diminished 5th (A and E-flat). Ragged and exhausted, tenor William Burden delivered an impassioned accompanied recitative “Gott! welch ein Dunkel hier!” (God! what darkness here) with ringing emotional intensity. The scene ended with a dream-vision, a tender Adagio cantabile with an almost manic Allegro conclusion, in which he imagined Leonore arriving to rescue him. Supported by outstanding winds and brasses, Burden conveyed a keen sensitivity to the changes of mood in an aria that corresponded aptly to Leonore’s aria of hope in Act I.
The scene that followed shifted from pure melodrama — spoken dialogue with instrumental accompaniment — to dramatic recitative, as Leonore and Rocco, following Pizarro’s orders, set about digging Florestan’s grave in an abandoned cistern. Florestan awoke and Leonore recognized him, but he remained unaware of her true identity. All three joined in a beautifully lyrical ensemble, again expressing divergent emotions: the trio “Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten” (May you be rewarded in a better world). Pizarro returned, dagger drawn, to kill Florestan, Leonore, armed with a loaded pistol, interposed herself, while an off-stage trumpet announced the arrival of Don Fernando, the king’s minister, who would set everything right. “O namenlose Freude” (O joy beyond expression) matched Harmer and Burden in their only duet, a moving celebration of steadfastness rewarded. The rousing Finale began as the remaining captives emerged from prison to be joined by the townspeople in ecstatic rejoicing. As Don Fernando, Brian Kontes brought a deep and powerful bass and resolute delivery to the crucial stanza in which he awarded Leonore the privilege of removing Florestan’s chains.
On many counts this was a rewarding performance of Beethoven’s heroic manifesto. Hearing Fidelio in a hall of reasonable size, more akin to Schikaneder’s Theater an der Wien in Vienna, where it was first performed, than to a many-tiered large opera house, allowed one to appreciate its many beauties in detail. Martin Pearlman led his orchestra of skilled players with a fine sense of pacing and balance. The period instruments simply sounded right, never restrained or precious: strings were well attuned and nimble, winds and brasses bright and clear, not to mention the crisply articulated timpani. The choruses, an important feature of this opera, added much to its emotional weight. The soloists, most of them appearing for the first time with Boston Baroque, were all outstanding. Perhaps most enjoyable, however, were their ensemble performances in duets, trios, and quartets that still allowed their divergent voice qualities to come to the fore. And Mark Streshinsky’s stage direction lent a sense of order and cohesion to the whole.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.