Leonora Christine Brewer
Rocco Peter Rose
Marzelline Lisa Milne
Jacquino & First Prisoner Timothy Robinson
Pizarro Terje Stensvold
Florestan Thomas Moser
Don Fernando & Second Prisoner Mathew Rose
Scottish Chamber Chorus
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: 8 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This was a concert heralding Sir Charles Mackerras’s 80th-birthday, in November; regrettably, the performance as a whole was decidedly underwhelming. Why use a chamber orchestra in a large hall such as the Barbican? And why natural trumpets and small timpani in a modern orchestra? As a result of these misconceived nods in the direction of ‘authenticity’ the strings often struggled to be heard and the drums sounded feeble; furthermore, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as suggested by several of its recordings, proved blandly competent. The sound was warm and rounded but the woodwind had little individuality and the lower strings seemed to plod their way through much of the score. There were also numerous examples of dodgy intonation and ensemble; the horns in Leonora’s great “Abscheulicher” only managed an approximation of what is written.
Unfortunately the singing wasn’t much better. Lisa Milne was charming, but her phrasing in the great ‘canon quartet’ came close to being twee, which is hardly appropriate. Timothy Robinson was fine, with a sweet tone and good intonation. Matthew Rose essayed his two roles in tone both thin and unsteady. Don Fernando is a pivotal role, representing liberation and the benevolent use of power and authority, and it requires a focused but large bass voice; it was also regrettable that he made so little of the words. Peter Rose failed to suggest Rocco’s unprincipled weakness and avarice; he might have made more of an impression if his voice’s lower octave hadn’t been so worn and thin. Much the same could be said of Terje Stensvold’s Pizarro. “Ha! welch’ ein Augenblick!” featured vivid word-painting, but Stensvold was unable to dominate the orchestra in the exultant cries of ‘Triumph!’. Similarly, in the great paean to vengeance “Er sterbe!”, and in the duet “Jetzt, Alter” neither he nor Rose created any sense of friction in the bargaining over a man’s life; the dynamic range of both was also severely limited. Of Thomas Moser’s Florestan little can be said. The voice clearly is now severely damaged, and the high tessitura of “Und spur’ ich nicht linde” at the end of his big scene and aria broke and constricted it even further. Nor was there any compensating emotional insight.
Christine Brewer has recently recorded Fidelio in English for Chandos and is one of the world’s most sought-after dramatic sopranos. She was the most convincing member of the cast both vocally and dramatically. Her tone and intonation were steady; she had both the power and agility to sing “Abscheulicher”; she varied her tone and dynamics in a way that seemed to be beyond her male colleagues; yet the start of “Komm, Hoffnung” was slightly ungainly and under-powered and more legato phrasing would have been of benefit.
In the Overture Sir Charles Mackerras made little attempt to mould the string phrases; in the Rocco/Pizarro duet there was no sense of tension in the way the orchestra charts the underlying emotions of the protagonists. In other places there were few staccato and sforzando effects (which are an essential part of Beethoven’s soundworld) and a lack of dynamic gradation and variety in the woodwind parts. Tempos were generally well chosen, but in the Act Two quartet more pace and attack was needed, and while the opening tempo of the final scene was perfect, at “Wer ein holdes Weib errungen” the speed was too fast, the chorus sounding like a machine gun and the sense of universal jubilation (which Karl Böhm for example brought to this scene at a similar speed) largely missing. Mackerras also chose to do something quite unforgivable: he interpolated (like Mahler and Leonard Bernstein before him) the ‘Leonora No. 3’ Overture in between the last two scenes. This makes absolutely no musical or dramatic sense and was merely disruptive.
The audience rose to acclaim Mackerras. His contribution to music over the decades deserves such a response – but not on this occasion.