Opera Review: Beethoven’s “Leonore” — Upcoming Performances in New York City
By Ralph P. Locke
Music lovers should seize this rare opportunity to see Beethoven’s first (1805) version of Fidelio, complete with a reconstruction of Florestan’s original aria.
Beethoven composed only one opera, Fidelio, but he made three different versions of it. The first and (drastically shortened) second versions have sometimes been recorded. They are almost never staged. But on February 26, I attended a performance of the first, 1805 version at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington DC, and was immensely impressed.
I hasten to share briefly my impressions, in hopes that some readers may have the occasion to attend the remaining two performances, which will occur in New York City on March 2 and March 4. Performances take place at the Kaye Playhouse at 7 p.m.
The early (1805 and 1806) versions of Fidelio are always known as Leonore, in order to distinguish them from the 1814 version that is normally recorded and performed. The three overtures that Beethoven composed for the opera’s early productions, similarly, are called the Leonore Overtures 1, 2, and 3.
The 1805 opera is longer than the 1814 version, in part because Beethoven eventually tightened many of the musical numbers. He also eliminated several in order to help the drama move along more swiftly and greatly reworked many, including the major arias for Leonore and for Florestan. Among the segments in the 1805 version that he later omitted entirely are a trio for Leonore, Marzelline, and Rocco, and an astonishingly lovely duet for Leonore and Marzelline plus solo violin and solo cello. If you are tempted to think that the excised numbers are not worth getting to know, please remember that we are dealing here with music by a composer at the height of his powers. Beethoven had finished the Eroica Symphony two years earlier!
A recording of the 1805 Leonore has recently been released, deriving from a live concert performance in Paris, conducted by René Jacobs. (I will be publishing a review of that on The Arts Fuse.) The Opera Lafayette performances have certain similarities to the Jacobs recording: they use a period-instrument orchestra and the singers are generally light-toned: more Mozart-weight than Wagner-weight. This allows for fleeter tempos. Also, small surprises in dynamics, harmony, or rhythm make a bigger impact in contrast to a more gracious, almost casual-sounding norm.
Particularly admirable in Opera Lafayette’s cast are soprano Nathalie Paulin, as the heroic Leonore; tenor Jean-Michel Richer as her husband, the unjustly imprisoned Florestan; bass Stephen Hegedus as the greedy but good-hearted jailer Rocco; and soprano Pascale Beaudin as his flirtatious daughter Marzelline. They, and indeed all the other singers, including members of the admirable chorus, have voices that are smoothly produced, with no hint of wobble. Though most of the cast members are French-Canadians, they handle the German with aplomb, both in the sung numbers and in the intervening spoken dialogue.
The sets, costumes, and stage direction are all very much in the spirit of the work. Nothing feels forced or like a new “reconceptualization.” Even the few added bits of stage business help put the plot across because they were tailored to particular characters (such as Marzelline’s secretly snatching up a purse of coins from the ground shortly before the opera ends).
Throughout the performance at the Kennedy Center, the Opera Lafayette orchestra played with grace and power, and several of the early wind instruments (such as flute, oboe, and trumpet) made a notably fresh and poetic effect, quite different from what their modern equivalent tend to do. Ryan Brown (founder and artistic director of Opera Lafayette, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season) conducted elegantly and impetuously, as the flow of the music demanded.
A highlight of the performance was the reconstruction, by renowned conductor/scholar/critic Will Crutchfield, of the 1805 version of Florestan’s aria at the beginning of Act 3. The Jacobs recording adopted the 1806 version, but Crutchfield went back to Beethoven’s surviving sketchbooks to try to approximate more closely what audiences heard in 1805. He described the compositional challenges that he faced in a thoughtful, nuanced New York Times article. The result was totally persuasive, not least as touchingly rendered by tenor Richer. I hope that other opera companies try staging the 1805 Leonore and use Crutchfield’s version of Florestan’s aria. (Crutchfield and Ryan Brown give full credit to four musicologists who helped them gain access to and understand the surviving sources for the opera and for this problematic aria: Michael Tusa, Helga Lühning, Kristina Muxfeldt and Kirby Haugland.) All audience members received, in addition to the usual program book, a large-format publication containing Crutchfield’s completion of the Florestan aria as well as immensely informative essays by Brown, Crutchfield, Julia Doe, and Nizam Peter Kettaneh. What a wonder Opera Lafayette is, and how lucky we are to have them here as part of the cultural life on America’s Eastern seaboard!
Opera Lafayette is filming the New York performances in order to release a DVD of it, just as they did for their 2017 production of Pierre Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou l’Amour conjugal (1798). The libretto for that opera was the main basis for the one used (in German translation) by Beethoven. Opera Lafayette had the brilliant idea of developing a set and costumes to be used for both operas, and even to use many of the same singers. The photos you see here are thus very close to what you will see if you attend the New York performances on March 2 or 4.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. He contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines NewYorkArts.net, OperaToday.com, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in OxfordMusicOnline (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).