Sunday 13 December 2020

A Life On-Line: Beethoven's Fidelo from Opera North

Beethoven: Fidelio - Rachel Nicholls, Toby Spence - Opera North 2020 (Photo Richard H Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Rachel Nicholls, Toby Spence - Opera North 2020
(Photo Richard H Smith)

Beethoven Fidelio; Toby Spence, Rachel Nicholls, Fflur Wyn, Oliver Johnston, Brindley Sherratt, Robert Hayward, Matthew Stiff, cond: Mark Wigglesworth, dir: Matthew Eberhardt; Opera North

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 December 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A company achievement, fielding its largest stage ensemble for quite some time, Beethoven's opera from Opera North at Leeds Town Hall

Inevitably, Beethoven is looming large this week as in a few days' time we celebrate his 250th birthday; though as with many aspects of this great composer, even this is a bit of a mystery. We know the date of Beethoven's baptism, so the date of birth has had to be presumed to be the day before. I previewed a fascinating programme which looks at the Scottish Gaelic connections of Beethoven's folksong arrangements [to be broadcast on BBC ALBA on 16/12/2020], and I am looking forward to Donald Macleod's final week of his year-long exploration of Beethoven in Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3. As live concerts have resumed, I was lucky enough to hear the Solem Quartet in one of Beethoven's late quartets at the Spotlight Chamber Concerts.

But the notable event this week as Beethoven's Fidelio live-streamed on Saturday 12 December 2020, by Opera North from Leeds Town Hall. The company fielded an orchestra of 33 and a chorus of 24, its largest stage-ensemble since COVID-19. Mark Wigglesworth conducted, Matthew Eberhardt directed with Toby Spence as Florestan, Rachel Nicholls as Leonore, Fflur Wyn as Marzelline, Oliver Johnston as Jaquino, Brindley Sherratt as Rocco, Robert Hayward as Don Pizarro and Matthew Stiff as Don Fernando.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Rachel Nicholls, Brindley Sherratt, Fflur Wyn - Opera North 2020 (Photo Richard H Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Rachel Nicholls, Brindley Sherratt, Fflur Wyn - Opera North 2020
(Photo Richard H Smith)

The opera was performed in German with the spoken dialogue replaced by a narration (written by David Pountney) given to Matthew Stiff. This latter was very effective indeed, but I still missed the dialogue or rather I missed the transitions from spoken text to music, the use of melodrama and certain key phrases such as Leonore's 'Ich habe Mut und Kraft'. The staging was discreetly effective, and with no sets and no costumes (though I did notice that amidst the all black ensembles, Brindley Sherratt's Rocco was wearing a magnificent black cardigan) we focused on the characters. 

I am rather starting to like the new lithe Beethoven that has been a result of the crisis [Opera North used an orchestral reduction by Francis Griffin]. Whilst the orchestra might have been lacking in sheer numbers there was no lack of drama or sophistication in its performance of the overture, from Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra. Fflur Wyn and Oliver Johnston made a strong pairing as the younger lovers and with performances as richly rounded as these, for once the characters felt less as if they'd dropped out of a singspiel into a music drama. Wyn's Marzelline was sparky yet sympathetic and Johnston's ardent Jaquino was less whinily annoying than usual. Brindley Sherratt made rather a dark Rocco, not quite as roundly cuddly (for all the cardigan) and more hard edged. These were performances which made me regret to missing dialogue and the full staging, I wanted to get to know them further.

With her gamin looks, Rachel Nicholls cut a very boyish figure as Leonore, but she combines this with a dramatic voice with which she sings Wagner's heldensopran roles. But whilst Nicholls might sing Wagner's more dramatic maidens, she still brought to the music a lyric sense of line. She sang with clean, bright tone warmed by vibrato which brought out a sense of character's youth and idealism. Her great Act One aria, one of the moments when Beethoven's later conception of opera suddenly appears out of the earlier singspiel, felt an extension of her boyish persona, it was still lithe and bright but also seriously felt. This Leonore had a complex inner life. Her Act Two was just as powerful, and still with that sense of steeling herself up to her fullest resolve.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Rachel Nicholls - Opera North 2020 (Photo Richard H Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Rachel Nicholls - Opera North 2020 (Photo Richard H Smith)

This is the second time I have seen Toby Spence as Florestan this Autumn, as he made his debut in the role with Garsington Opera in September. Here, he was ardent with a lyric sense of line, and the feeling that his Act Two aria took him to the limit of his power, but then Florestan should. This isn't an interpretation, like that of Jon Vickers, where the protagonist opens up to infinite power, Spence's portrayal is truly human, fallible yet ardent and deeply feeling.

Robert Hayward blustered finely as Don Pizarro and Matthew Stiff made a dignified Don Fernando as well as delivering the narrations in a manner which kept us engaged and linked the story together. The chorus role in the opera is not large, but it is highly significant and the Opera North chorus impressed both with their beauty of tone and sense being part of the drama. Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra supported the singers and allowed the piece to work as a whole, lithe yet strongly felt, finely shaped yet committed.

The finale was, perhaps, not as cathartic as it could have been, but you could still sense the feeling of group achievement. This was the largest performance that Opera North has given for a long time, and it was inevitably a deeply felt one. We regretted that lack of a full staging, but there was never a doubt of the commitment and intensity that all concerned brought to the piece.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Opera North 2020 (Photo Richard H Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Opera North 2020 (Photo Richard H Smith)

The production remains available on-demand for seven days, see the Opera North website.

You can read about the rest of this week's on-line explorations in the second part of my A Life On-Line column.

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