Few operas have had such a troubled initial history as "Fidelio", Beethoven´s only and unique opera. Unique because stylistically it has no predecessors and no imitators. Two "fs" define it: freedom and fidelity. Formally it is a Singspiel (spoken and sung fragments alternate). And it´s a member of a trend of those times: the "rescue opera".
It is based on a true story told by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who transported it to a prison in the suburbs of Seville to avoid French censorship. His "Léonore, ou l´amour conjugal" was translated and adapted by Joseph Sonnleithner and as "Leonore" and in three acts, the opera was premièred at Vienna´s Theater and der Wien on November 20, 1805, just a week after the city had been invaded by Napoleon, hardly the appropriate time.
No other opera in history has had four overtures: Leonore 1 was discarded and has remained as a symphonic piece; Leonore 2, longer than Leonore 3 but with similar material, opened the three-act "Leonore", but when it was reduced to two acts by Stephan Von Breuning, Leonore 3 was played. This was on March 29, 1806. The opera we know as "Fidelio" was premièred in May 23, 1814, but the homonymous overture (with different material from the three Leonores) was finally heard three days later. And at that time the opera triumphed; Napoleon was vanquished, a new Europe existed. This version had numerous changes and a new libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, and it´s the one heard nowadays.
Nevertheless there have been revivals of "Leonore", I suppose in its 1806 revision, and there are recordings such as the one conducted by Blomstedt; I have it and two things strike me: the longer time assigned to Singspiel Romantic aspects such as the Marzelline-Jaquino relationship, and the much more expanded monologue of Florestan. The ideal (will we ever see it?) would be to offer staged "Fidelio" and in succesive nights a concert version of "Leonore" and the four overtures.
The main dramatic problem is that suspension of disbelief is carried to the extreme, for Fidelio is Leonore and we are supposed to accept that the jailer Rocco, his assistant Jaquino and his daughter Marzelline are convinced that Fidelio, Rocco´s new helper, is a young man (of course, for spectators it´s even harder for she-he is a dramatic soprano, generally of Wagnerian size). The main musical problem is Beethoven´s essence: he is an instrumental rather than a vocal composer, and his lines are often uncomfortable and very high-ranged (as they are for both chorus and soloists in the Choral Symphony and the Missa Solemnis). But Beethoven´s impetus, imagination and individuality are inimitable, and we would all be poorer if "Fidelio" didn´t exist.
I am sorry to say that the current "Fidelio" has one of the weakest casts and conductor and by far the worst production I ever saw (this is my "Fidelio" Nº 16 and the eighth at the Colón). The cast first. The yearly booklet announced Elisabete Matos but it was later changed: Nadja Michael (the admirable Kundry of last December) came, rehearsed but quit for mysterious "personal reasons". And Carla Filipcic Holm, of the second cast, was promoted to the first. She had sung the part at Buenos Aires Lírica in 2010 rather well. This time I found her uneven, with powerful moments followed by others of little vocal and dramatic presence.
Serbian tenor Zoran Todorovitch (debut) was metallic and forced in his big monologue but later was better, as he found a more agreeable timbre and phrasing. The two basses were the best: Manfred Hemm (Rocco, debut) gave a well-practiced performance with a serviceable voice, and Hernán Iturralde was his usual assured self as Don Fernando, the Minister whose timely appearance puts things right. The villain Pizarro was sung with little focus to his tone by Homero Pérez Miranda, who didn´t transmit the evilness of his character.
I was disappointed by the shrillness that has invaded the high notes of Jaquelina Livieri, whose Marzelline was far from the quality of last year´s Sophie in "Werther". Santiago Bürgi was a correct Jaquino. But the real heroes were the members of the Chorus under Miguel Martínez, with singing that according to requirements was fresh and full-voiced or subtle and soft.
And Francisco Rettig, a conductor I usually admire, for some reason got questionable results from the orchestra (poor horns, crucial in the Leonore scene) and there were misadjustments with the stage. Also, he committed a serious mistake: Mahler instituted the practice of playing Leonore 3 between the two tableaux of the Second Act, and there it works perfectly, for the trumpet signal reiterates the arrival of Fernando heard some minutes before. But Rettig put it in the worst possible place, just before the anguished Prelude to Florestan´s monologue.
Eugenio Zanetti did almost all: production, stage, costume and multimedia design. (The lighting was by Rubén Conde). "Fidelio" needs starkness and simplicity. Here we got delirious ideas packed together. A short list: endless comings and goings during the overtures, which are meant for listening; an ugly, bloody drop; witnesses where there shouldn´t be any (voyeurism); Florestan singing inside a luminous tube when he is exclaiming "God! How dark it is!" ; Pizarro clad in XVIIth century attire at the top of a small tank; prisoners that don´t come out of jails; and a big etcetera.
For Buenos Aires Herald