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OPERA REVIEW

Fest Gives Beethoven Opera an Airing

August 02, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — In 1805, Beethoven gave the world his only opera. He called it "Leonora" after its heroine, and through her, he gave voice to a bursting revolutionary fervor that opera, and little else in art, had scarcely before imagined.

But the opera was a mess, and its premiere a disaster. Nine years later, Beethoven refashioned it as "Fidelio" and made an even bigger muck of it dramatically. Now, however, its vision had become so grand, its themes of freedom and universal brotherhood so overpowering, that it became an irrepressible anthem for the populist political aspirations of the 19th century. And it remained a potent symbol well into our frightening century. Hitler tried to appropriate it for his own ends; postwar Germany retaliated by using it to proclaim release from Nazi oppression.

But heroism isn't what it used to be, and neither is Beethoven. And there could be no more vivid proof of that than the fascinating experiment by Lincoln Center Festival 96, in which the two versions of the opera were given back-to-back concert performances. Tuesday night in Alice Tully Hall, "Leonora" was the occasion for the American debut of John Eliot Gardiner's period-instrument Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (which had also, over the weekend, performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, televised on PBS, and "Missa Solemnis").

"Fidelio" was entrusted the next evening in Avery Fisher Hall to the New York Philharmonic, under its music director, Kurt Masur. Gardiner relied on light, flexible voices; Masur trusted old-fashioned operatic might with the likes of Deborah Voigt and Gary Lakes.

For some years now the early music movement has been undertaking a guerrilla action against the traditional big guns approach to Beethoven, and it is winning the battle. The Beethoven symphony period recordings of Gardiner are bestsellers, as were Nikolaus Harnoncourt's and Roger Norrington's before him, whereas the Beethoven recordings of Masur and just about all the other music directors of major orchestras are hard to unload even as remainders. Novelty accounts for some of the popularity of the hooting sounds of old instruments and the super-fast tempos (with nearly 100 recordings of Beethoven's Ninth in the catalog, you have to do something different).

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But the real attraction is imagination. Conductors such as Gardiner have been rethinking everything there is to rethink in performing Beethoven. And nowhere is there greater need for creative solutions than in the opera Beethoven's public and history have dismissed.

Gardiner's activist approach included making his own performance version of the score (there is the original 1805 version and a desperately revised version a year later that Beethoven hoped would salvage the opera, but that only made the situation worse). And it involved making creative choices as to how to present the work.

Gardiner did not completely vindicate "Leonora"; there is no question that it is too long and lacks consistent inspiration. But Gardiner found what life there is in it by always making the drama the starting point. The semi-staged production by Annabel Arden had the feisty soloists and Gardiner's superlative Monteverdi Choir fully enacting the libretto in a semi-circle behind the orchestra. Because the smallish period-instrument orchestra's dynamics are not too daunting, soprano Hillevi Martinpelto (Leonora) and tenor Kim Begley (Florestan) could be believably heroic without big voices.

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Evil works better, too, with old instruments, Detlef Roth's Don Pizarro seethed in a way you could actually hear. And what other orchestra can boast a violinist who doubles as off-stage trumpet, as Pauline Nobes does?

Beethoven's "Fidelio" is the more trenchant opera. Three uninspired numbers are gone, nearly every scene is rewritten; the acts are reduced from three to two, and both the finales are new and extraordinary. Masur oversaw a tight and hard-driven performance that allowed little opportunity to breathe. The singers, who sang without acting, were pressed. Voigt (Leonora) triumphed, but her triumph was that of her voice (which included a ringing high B) more than her characterization. Lakes (Florestan) made a big beefy sound but was also dramatically unconvincing.

An inexperienced singer like Grier Grimsley (who replaced a suddenly indisposed Simon Estes as Don Pizarro) didn't have a chance to drive in his notes or nastiness. But neither was there much breathing room for soprano Dominique Labelle (Marzelline), tenor Gordon Gietz (Jaquino) or bass Paul Plishka (Rocco), who all have lighter numbers to sing. Their counterparts in "Leonora" (soprano Christiane Oelze, tenor Michael Schade and bass Franz Hawlata) all shined.

Neither Gardiner nor Masur knew what to do about the dialogue spoken between the numbers, as in a musical comedy (neither, of course, did Beethoven, who tried to transform the comic Singspiel form into something terribly serious). Gardiner's solution was to use Beethoven, as impersonated by an actor, Daniel Massey, to tell the story, a postmodern touch that was theatrical but hokey. Masur didn't even try; he cut the dialogue to the bare bones, and took the opera as if it were an oratorio.

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