Revolutionary Spirit: Fidelio at the Atelier lyrique de Tourcoing

Beethoven – Fidelio

Leonore – Véronique Gens
Florestan – Donald Litaker
Rocco – Luigi de Donato
Marzelline – Marie Perbost
Jaquino – Jérémy Duffau
Don Pizarro – Alain Buet
Don Fernando – Nicolas Rivenq
Zwei Gefangene – Jérémy Duffau, Nicolas Rivenq

Chœur Régional des Hauts-de-France, La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy / Nicolas Krüger.
Concert performance.

Théâtre Municipal Raymond-Devos, Tourcoing, France.  Sunday, December 9th, 2018.

Today’s matinee of Fidelio marked my first visit to the town of Tourcoing and its Atelier lyrique.  It’s an interesting organization, proposing staged and concert performances of a wide range of repertoire, with both established and up-and-coming singers.  This Fidelio was due to be conducted by the late Jean-Claude Malgloire, but following his passing this past April, the evening was confided to French conductor Nicolas Krüger.

There were two aspects of particular interest when the show was first announced – the prise de rôle of Véronique Gens as Leonore, and the opportunity to hear this work finally on period instruments.  Of course, Beethoven’s earlier thoughts on the work have been performed relatively frequently by period instrument groups, but the chance to hear this final version is very rare.  It was indeed revelatory to hear these remarkable sonorities in this most familiar music.  The sound of the gut, vibrato-free strings at the start of the quartet was ravishing, bringing such great beauty to this glorious music.  Similarly, the way the strings scurried energetically around ‘Ha! Welch ein Augenblick’ brought an energy to the line that I found compelling.  The jubilance of the raspy trumpets in ‘Heil sei dem Tag!’ gave it even more of a sense of joy than one so often hears.  It must be said that the playing wasn’t quite impeccable – the strings had their moments of sour intonation here and there, and the horns were rather accident-prone in Leonore’s big number.  Yet, I left with a sense that this is how revolutionary this work must have sounded to its first audiences.  Particularly due to Krüger’s electrifying conducting.  Thanks to the dryness of the acoustic and small theatre combined with Krüger’s swift tempi throughout, there was a dynamism to the performance that felt completely overwhelming in its physicality.  Yes, ‘komm Hoffnung’ felt a little rushed, but the remainder of his conducting, founded in a solid bass line with undeniable rhythmic propulsion, was utterly convincing.

We didn’t quite get a concert performance in the traditional sense.  Although the principals sang their parts from behind music stands, projections at the back of the stage gave information about the characters and events, as well as some random imagery including palm trees and prison bars.  The dialogue was given en français.  For this pair of performances, most of the cast were giving role debuts and if there was a sense of them still feeling their respective ways into their parts, this is something perhaps inevitable for an isolated pair of performances such as these.

Gens brought her aristocratic beauty of tone to Leonore.  I did have a lingering sense that she was still working the role into the voice – her big scene was sung with determination perhaps, rather than the confidence of experience.  That fabulous line and instantly recognizable tone gave so much pleasure.  Once past her big number, she brought so much beauty to her music, especially in the trio in the dungeon.  She negotiated the frequent register crossing with ease, always absolutely integrated.  There were the seeds of something very special here.  Gens was born to sing this music and while it was a privilege to witness her debut, I very much hope she will keep this role in her repertoire and further develop it.

Her Florestan was the experienced Donald Litaker.  He brought decades of artistry to the role, filling the words with so much emotion.  His opening ‘Gott!’ set the stall – the vibrations loosening with desperation, channelling an elemental power.  He managed his resources artfully, negotiated the tricky writing with impeccable musicality.  Most impressive.

The remainder of the cast included some very interesting voices.  Diction wasn’t always absolutely impeccable but was always comprehensible.  Jérémy Duffau gave us an elegant, handsomely-sung Jaquino, in a youthful tenor.  Marie Perbost sang Marzelline’s music in a bright, forwardly-placed soprano with an attractive tartness to the tone.  Luigi de Donato sang Rocco in a warm, velvety bass.  Alain Buet was a big-voiced Pizaro, a bit dry of tone perhaps, but incisively sung.  Nicolas Rivenq gave us a Don Fernando sung off the text in a firm yet narrow baritone.  The chorus was most enthusiastic and had been clearly well prepared by Éric Deltour.

This might not have been a Fidelio for the ages but it was a most enjoyable one.  There was an undoubted sense of rediscovery, of getting to hear this familiar score anew and refreshed.  It was definitely worth hearing for Gens’ incomparable beauty of tone and Litaker’s sheer mastery and profound understanding of the music.  Krüger’s conducting was also revelatory – vital, alive and absolutely compelling.  It was indeed revolutionary as it must surely have been for those first audiences in the nineteenth century.

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The Théâtre Municipal Raymond-Devos © Théâtre Municipal Raymond-Devos

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