Original Thoughts: Leonore (1805) at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam

Beethoven – Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (1805)

Leonore – Marlis Petersen
Florestan – Maximilian Schmitt
Rocco – Dimitry Ivashchenko
Marzelline – Robin Johannsen
Don Pizarro – Johannes Weisser
Don Fernando / Zweiter Gefangener – Tareq Nazmi
Jaquino / Pförtner / Erster Gefangener – Johannes Chum

Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Freiburger Barockorchester / René Jacobs.
Concert performance.

Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  Saturday, October 28th, 2017.

The latest of René Jacobs’ series of operas in concert with the Freiburgers was this Leonore, Beethoven’s early thoughts on the work that would later become Fidelio.  In a detailed note in the program book, Jacobs argues that he believes that Leonore is a much stronger work than the later opera, pointing to how Beethoven further develops melodic ideas or is more daring in his use of tonality in the earlier version.  Having never heard it, either on a recording or live, it was fascinating to hear Beethoven’s initial thoughts.  In many places, there are melodic fragments that are more developed; in others, passages are very different or completely excised in the later version.  A beguiling duet for Leonore and Marzelline with solo cello and violin stands out.  Instead of the passionate ‘Abscheulicher’ accompanied recitative, the opening to Leonore’s big number ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ is more understated with much more florid writing for the soprano and the horns in the aria.  Notably also, ‘o namenlose Freude’ takes Leonore much higher than the later version – Marlis Petersen coped impressively with this extended tessitura, while Florestan’s entrance aria is much more desolate, more understated than it would later become.

Marlis Petersen. Photo: © Yiorgos Mavropoulos

While it was interesting to hear this version, I’m not sure that we gain more than we lose, paradoxically, from Fidelio.  This Leonore is a lot more experimental yet at the same time, feels a lot less cogently argued than Fidelio.  The latter, is tauter and, I would argue, in its concision a lot more dramatically incisive than Leonore, even if we perhaps sacrifice a little to character development.  Certainly, the extended duet preceding ‘o namenlose Freude’ brought home that sense of recognition, of two people learning to love again, that we perhaps lack in Fidelio (although anyone who has seen Calixto Bieito’s staging will know how a great director can tease it out).

Maximilian Schmitt © Christian Kagl

The Amsterdam Concertgebouw is a magnificent hall, and undoubtedly for symphonic music, one of the greatest venues on the planet.  I was sitting today in the balcony and I’m afraid that I didn’t get the best acoustic experience from the venue that I have on other occasions.  The sound was resonant but there was a tendency at times for it to lack clarity.  Additionally, as Jacobs has a tendency to use lighter voices, this meant that there were times at which they were occasionally lost in the texture.  It’s not an issue I’ve previously had at the venue, but might be worth bearing in mind for future visits.

Robin Johannsen. Photo: © Tatjana Dachsel

As always, the Freiburger Barockorchester played with supreme virtuosity. They set their stall immediately with a handsome string sound – the cellos in particular sounding especially sophisticated – and exciting raspy brass.  In his program note, Jacobs argues that the work needs swift tempi and he certainly gave them to us.  If the overture took a little while to take wing, it did soon enough and everything that Jacobs did with them felt absolutely right – every tempo, every effect and every phrase, it all sounded completely natural.  So often, the quartet feels unbearably slow yet here, he managed to make it feel as if time had stopped yet kept a flowing tempo.  He built up the tension unbearably as Pizarro was about to kill Florestan and found a joy to the finale that was irresistible.

Johannes Weisser. Photo: © Yann Bougaran

Marlis Petersen gave us a bright and lithe Leonore, necessarily so given the higher tessitura of this version.  She negotiated the florid writing of ‘komm Hoffnung’ with ease and managed the ever-increasing tessitura of ‘namenlose Freude’ with inspiring confidence.  The beauty of tone that she brought to the role gave it a femininity that revealed her womanness even before she revealed it herself making ‘komm Hoffnung’ the emotional heart of the opera, just as it should be.

Tareq Nazmi Photo: © Christine Schefer

Singing with apologies for a cold, betrayed by a slight cloudiness in places, Maximilian Schmitt gave us an elegant and musical Florestan.  His initial ‘Gott’ was more introvert and perhaps even more heartfelt than we are used to.  Even under these circumstances, he brought such a handsome sense of line that felt absolutely right, always singing off the text.  Another singer who always sings with the text is Johannes Weisser.  He was absolutely magnetic to watch – even here in concert bringing out Pizarro’s blustering frustration with his acting and use of text.  His was a youthful Pizarro in tone, exploiting that splendid dark lower extension he has, here used with malevolent intent.  Robin Johannsen gave us a beguiling Marzelline, the voice seemingly floating on air through the hall, with a liquid legato matching the crystalline tone.  Tareq Nazmi was a tower of strength as Fernando, the tone full and resonant always absolutely even in emission.  Johannes Chum offered his peppery tenor as Jaquino, blending nicely in the quartet with his colleagues.

Rene Jacobs. Photo: © Marco Borggreve

The chorus was the Zürcher Sing-Akademie and what a fabulous group they are.  They sang with well-balanced tone, mellifluous in the prisoners’ chorus and vibrant in the finale.  They gave us a big sound yet it was always ideally blended, never any hint of voices sticking out, and ensemble was always tight.

Het Concertgebouw. Photo: © Emmely Siebrecht

It was a pleasure to get to hear this version of Leonore today and it could not wish for a greater advocate than Jacobs.  Certainly, it gained added poignancy, especially now as we once again see political prisoners in southern Europe.  One could not hope for a better performance than these forces gave us today.  It really was performed at the very highest level by the entire cast.  Ultimately however, I left with the impression that Fidelio is the stronger work.  While I regret the loss of the introduction to ‘namenlose Freude’ and the Marzelline/Leonore duet, the latter work feels stronger, tauter and, above all, more dramatic than the original.  It was a splendid afternoon and one that was definitely worth making the journey to see.

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