Chelsea Opera Group – Leonore

Leonore – Opera in three acts [Concert performance]

Leonore – Brigitte Wohlfart
Florestan – Justin Lavender
Pizarro – Simon Neal
Rocco – Richard Wiegold
Marzelline – Melinda Hughes
Don Fernando – Dean Robinson
Jaquino – Colin Judson
First Prisoner – Mark van Meents
Second Prisoner – Chris Moore

Chorus and Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Howard Williams

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 26 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Beethoven’s opera, “Leonore”, was somewhat unsuccessful when in 1805 it received its first performances: only three were given, and a revised version a few months later saw only two. It was not until 1814 that the opera we now know as “Fidelio”, after many drastic changes, omissions and rearrangements, became accepted.

The 1805 version, presented by Chelsea Opera Group, contains little that matches the 1814 score, though the longer setting of “O namenlose Freude” heard here offers the singers more scope. The recitative preceding Leonore’s “Komm Hoffnung” is a mere nothing compared to the later, far more dramatic “Abscheulicher”, and Florestan’s aria is easier for the tenor because it does not have the throat-threatening tessitura that Beethoven wrote for the last section in the final form. In the original setting, the work had three acts, and in tightening the construction in 1814 the composer dropped a trio from Act One and a duet for Marzelline and Leonore in Act Two. As Marzelline sings in both pieces, her role was considerably shortened in the final revision.

One must say, if only to get it out of the way, that the orchestra was really tested at times: the horns accompanying “Komm Hoffnung” found their difficult task beyond them (they had our sympathy), and it is very much to the credit of Brigitte Wohlfart that she sang the aria so well without their support. She had joined the cast at a late date (after the programme had been printed) to replace the indisposed Turid Karlson. Hers was not the cutting Wagnerian voice of a Birgit Nilsson but rather had a warm, well-focused sound of attractive quality that could open to a bright top in loud, high passages. She is certainly someone whom I should like to hear again. COG’s scouts did well to find her.

As Florestan, Justin Lavender was not the heavy heldentenor but showed that an easily produced, well focused voice of lyric tenor proportions could make its mark, and he did have enough heft to come through in ensembles. Richard Wiegold’s dark bass was suited to Rocco, but his actual vocal production is somewhat backward. As Marzelline, Melinda Hughes sang neatly, though more depth of tone would benefit the voice. This was the first time that I had heard her and as I was seated in a side section and she was at the other side of the stage I was not in the best position to judge her, but the tone did seem rather slim and shallow. Not so that of Simon Neal as the villainous Pizarro. This was Neal’s third appearance with COG, and his contribution was again noteworthy. The snarl on his face was matched by that in his voice, making this prison governor a truly positive character. As a baritone, Neal found the higher passages of his role easy, with the open tone having the necessary bite. (A couple of low notes in his aria were outside his comfort zone.)

Howard Williams conducted sympathetically, despite those awkward moments for the orchestra, and he shaped the music convincingly. The chorus did a fine job, as usual, particularly the male contingent in the Prisoners’ Chorus. Certainly the comments which I heard during the interval and at the end were positive. The Chelsea Opera Group does arouse a feeling of admiration even when one is aware that gremlins are intruding.

On 11 March, at Cadogan Hall, COG will present Verdi’s “Attila”, with Nelly Miricioiu in the role of Odabella.

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