Professor Barry Cooper in his Prom programme note gives an assessment of his character somewhat different from the usual one of a man irascible, intolerant, treating relations badly and his dwelling place (frequently changed, servants fled from his employment) awash with brimming chamber pots. So far, so dubious. But the professor has one perceptive sentence about the music: “its combination of beauty and unpredictability, extreme emotional depth and intellectual rigour, across so many genres, is unsurpassed and probably always will be.”
Beethoven also had the gift, often to be heard in his opera Fidelio, of giving an impression of moral goodness achieved with the simplest of means by the juxtaposition of the two commonest cadential chords, the tonic and the dominant. The performance of his only opera at the Proms (22 August) did justice to the work and that is saying a lot. Daniel Barenboim (now possessing an Palestinian as well as an Israeli passport) conducted his unique East-West Divan Orchestra, a magnificent chorus (BBC & the George Mitchell singers) and a superb cast.
Waltraud Meier personified the central character Leonora (Beethoven’s heroine and his own preferred title to the opera of 1805); her singing and her shining top A’s were memorable (despite some imperfectly tuned lower notes). As well as singing, she narrated Edward Said’s the script spoken in character of Leonora who, dressed as the youth Fidelio, rescues her husband Florestan, imprisoned by the villain Pizarro. This narration replaced most of the opera’s spoken dialogue and that was a pity.
Speaking of replacement, the evening began, not with Beethoven’s final choice from among the four overtures that he composed but with the mighty tone-poem that is the Leonora Overture No.3, a lengthy master work that seems to tell the story of the opera in a gigantic nutshell. The composer finally discarded it and wrote the shorter piece known as the Fidelio Overture which he considered more suitable as a prelude to the domestic first scene of the drama. I think Beethoven was right.
The Australian tenor Simon O’Neill sang Florestan’s de Profundis prison aria with golden tones but seemed to tire subsequently, for in the radiant A major trio following his rescue the gold had turned almost to tin. Ideal throughout was John Tomlinson’s portrayal of gaoler Rocco. Adriana Kucerova was good but her voice was not that of a light lyric soprano (Marcellina at the ironing board) buts more like a Leonora waiting in the wings, i.e. a heavier type of voice – smashing red dress, as seen on telly! Sad to say, neither her would be-lover, Jacquino, nor the villain Pizarro, were up to scratch. But the two gaol birds in the heart breaking Prisoners Chorus were strikingly good, Andrew Murgatroyd and Edwin Price. Orchestra & conductor were on top form and deserved our thanks for some great music making.
Fidelio may not be the finest opera, but much of the score is surely some of the greatest operatic music ever composed; the quartet where all four singers express individual thoughts yet sing the same music, Leonora’s outraged and beautiful aria with three solo horns, the prison aria, the dénoument with trumpet calls, the radiant duet and trio after the rescue, these are Beethoven at his most sublime.
Two details: Beethoven took some inspiration from the ‘rescue’ operas by Cherubini yet the composer he almost quotes here is Mozart. And re those famous trumpet calls which get progressively louder. Why do they? Surely it is the rescuing governor who gets nearer, not the watching trumpeter.
Some friends of Beethoven said that the man was almost as remarkable as the composer. Hearing Fidelio so movingly and eloquently performed it is easy to forget the irritable, untamed, domestic (and don’t forget: frustrated) man and listen in awe and wonder at the noble achievement of this great composer.