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Beethoven's link to the what, in some quarters, would be called liberal causes -- liberty from tyrannical states, the brotherhood of man, the power of love and justice -- may have been a bit exaggerated over time.

But this is how many people want to imagine the composer, and why he is embraced so heartily.

When Leonard Bernstein changed a beloved text from "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom" in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth to mark the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, it seemed safe to assume that the composer would have approved.

After all, Beethoven had already revealed a firm commitment to freedom and the overthrow of evil forces in his single opera, "Fidelio."

That commitment registered anew in a gripping concert version of the opera offered by the National Symphony Orchestra, led by its music director Christoph Eschenbach.

When the prisoners in Act 1 make their tentative steps out of their cells for a rare sight of sunlight; when Florestan, unjustly held in the jail, sings of his despair at the start of the second act; when a benevolent ruler arrives in the nick of time -- it is impossible to miss Beethoven's sympathies in such passages.

And when, at the end, everyone offers an ecstatic salute to the loyalty and bravery of Leonore, the good wife who risked her life to save her husband, Beethoven isn't just reinforcing the value of a strong marriage. He celebrates the greatness of the noble, selfless individual fighting against ruthless, immoral and amoral authorities.

Well, that's how I like to think of it, at least. And that's how I heard it Saturday night in the NSO's memorable performance at the Kennedy Center.

This was very much ...

a theatrical "Fidelio." Presented in an effectively semi-staged format, the action moved rapidly and absorbingly as directed by Stephen Pickover (only some hand-pointing and flag-waving actions assigned to the chorus struck me as unwise). The cast got well into the piece, so that it was easy to conjure vivid imagery to go with each scene.

I wish Melanie Diener had landed more squarely on pitch all the time, but her portrayal of Leonore rang true. At her best, the soprano produced a lush, dark sound and sculpted the demanding music with considerable expressive fire.

Simon O'Neill delivered Florestan's equally demanding music with an affecting passion, not to mention laser-like articulation and a bright, theater-filling tone. (This was the voice we didn't get to hear last year, when O'Neill sang Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" with the Baltimore Symphony hours after being hospitalized .)

With his plush voice and appreciation for every syllable of text, Eric Halfvarson did stylish, sterling work as Rocco, the common man with an uncommon conscience. Tomasz Konieczny thundered effectively as the nasty Don Pizzaro. Kyle Ketelsen brought a rich bass-baritone and a compelling delivery to the role of the enlightened Don Fernando.

As Marzelline, sweet-voiced Jegyung Yang did not always project easily, but her colorful characterization did. Paul Appleby performed the small role of Jaquino vibrantly. And Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society of Washington was in superb form. The men produced a beautifully blended tone for the prisoner scene; the full chorus helped to shake the rafters splendidly in the finale.

The NSO delivered very impressive playing, right from the overture. There was discipline in the attack, warmth in the tone, expressive depth in the phrasing. The horns had a particularly beneficial night.

The main star of the evening -- besides Beethoven, of course -- was Eschenbach. His inspired and inspiring guidance drew fresh details from the score, emphasizing, for example, the subterranean orchestral colors during the dungeon scene, and ensuring that each of Beethoven's edgiest chords really shattered the place before resolving.

Eschenbach also fashioned a marvelously moody, seamless transition from the rescue scene to the "Leonore" Overture No. 3. In that overture (often interpolated as scene-change filler in opera house productions), the conductor's interest in dynamic contrasts, rhythmic tautness and, in the closing moments, sheer, unbridled joy paid off handsomely.

He unleashed that same mood in the opera's last scene, driving everyone onstage to a peak of contagious exhilaration. The whole performance provided a memorable journey on the road to joy.


6 years ago | Read Full Story
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