Magazine | September 7, 2015, Issue

Rewriting Beethoven

Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan in Salzburg’s new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio (© Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus)

Salzburg — It’s really hot here, as everyone keeps pointing out. The weather may be the most boring subject in the world, but sometimes you can’t avoid it. A local lady told me, “This is the hottest summer we’ve had in 200 years” — that would be about 25 years after Mozart, who was born and raised here, but during the life of Beethoven, for example.

Even in the best of times, the coolest of times, the halls are hot at the Salzburg Festival. The Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum, I long ago nicknamed the “Grosser Sauna.” In all the halls this summer, patrons are sweating buckets, soaking their finery. Ladies beat fans determinedly.

Europeans like to knock air conditioning as a weird American vice, but a summer like this, in venues like these, can make you appreciate that vice as never before.

Enough of complaining about the weather, on to complaining about the opera productions. This season, Salzburg is staging Fidelio, Beethoven’s lone opera. He sweated over this piece as he did no other. He wrote no fewer than four overtures for it, trying to get it right. He got the overture right, and everything else too.

Fidelio is, among other things, one of the greatest paeans to political freedom in all of art. It is also one of the greatest paeans to love, and, specifically, to marital love.

Leonore applies to work in a prison, for she suspects that her husband, Florestan, is being kept there. Which turns out to be true. Florestan is a political prisoner of the corrupt, evil Pizarro. Leonore disguises herself as a young man and calls herself “Fidelio” (meaning the faithful one). At the last minute, Florestan is saved, Pizarro is vanquished, and husband and wife are reunited. Beethoven pours forth the white of C major. He bathes the stage, the ear, and the heart in light. Seldom is music so jubilant and affirmative. Fidelio is a work that expresses Beethoven’s highest ideals.

Salzburg’s new production is at variance with it. I hate to start an opera review with the production, and almost never do — for a production hogs enough attention as it is. Marilyn Horne (the great American mezzo-soprano) once said to me, “Critics spend the first two-thirds of their review on the production, and mention the singers at the end.” But if a production takes over an opera, it probably has to take over your review, too.

And I might point out to Miss Horne, in self-defense, that I began this review with the weather . . .

For Fidelio, Salzburg engaged Claus Guth, a German stage director. He has a long history here. Deploring his production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in 2006, I wrote, “Salzburg has taught me something I never knew: that you can completely alter the story of an opera without changing a word of the libretto — simply by having the characters act in unprescribed and novel ways.” I added, “If stage directors really want to create new operas, they should write their own. Their obsession with painting mustaches on Mona Lisas is both childish and reprehensible.”

I did some more harrumphing in 2008, on the occasion of another Guth production of another Mozart opera, Don Giovanni: “The point is, the production and the opera don’t match. The director has wrenched the opera away from the composer and librettist.”

More harrumphing followed in later years. And now (at last) to the current festival, and the Guth Fidelio.

I do not deplore it wholesale. Guth and his team do interesting things with light and shadow. The production is noirish. The director eliminates Beethoven’s dialogue, which is maybe not so bad — but he replaces it with long, silent pauses, which are meant to be dramatic. Instead, they stick out like sore thumbs, stopping the opera (on which Beethoven worked so hard, to get right).

These pauses are not entirely silent either, for Guth employs big, amplified, spooky noises, which are fashionable in opera productions now. At one point, there is a loud piercing noise, and I swear that, at first, I thought a hearing aid had gone haywire, as often happens in concert halls and opera houses (where senior citizens are numerous).

Leonore has a doppelgänger, dressed like her, who is constantly flashing her hands, in what appears to be sign language. Why? I don’t know, and, frankly, I don’t much care. I could probably crack open my program, to see what the director or someone else has to say. But I’m too stubborn to do that: I think that theater’s meaning should be fairly plain from the stage. I do not think a play or opera should require Cliffs Notes — and this goes double or triple for a canonical work like Fidelio.

When Florestan is saved, he and Leonore do not reunite and exult, as Beethoven conceives. They do what the director conceives. Evidently mad, Florestan recoils from Leonore. She sings, “Oh, what boundless happiness! My husband in my arms!” He sings, “Leonore in my arms! After untold sorrows, what surpassing joy!” But are they in each other’s arms? Of course not. That would be “too much like right,” as an old southern friend of mine would say. They are apart, with Leonore looking on in confusion and fear.

In the final scene, Florestan apparently rejects Leonore, probably out of madness rather than conscious choice. He then appears to die. This is not Fidelio. It is some other story. And it flatly contradicts the music and the libretto. In fact, it negates these things, kills them.

Reflecting on his field, architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright said, “A building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace.” So it is with opera productions.

Enough of the production, for now — on to the music-makers. Conducting this affair is Franz Welser-Möst, who is almost a local boy: He was born in Linz, about 80 miles to the northeast. For the past 14 years, he has been the music director in Cleveland. He was also, until recently, the music director of the Vienna State Opera. Speaking of which, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra serves in the pit for Fidelio.

On the night I attended, neither Welser-Möst nor the VPO had a particularly good overture. The music was dry and scrappy, and it achieved nothing like its emotional impact. Near the beginning, the horns did some stumbling, which is rare for the VPO. It almost made me homesick for the New York Philharmonic.

Welser-Möst did not improve as Act I proceeded. The orchestra was heavy, and loud, too, covering up the singers. The quartet (“Mir ist so wunderbar”) was earthbound, missing its sublimity. The march to which Pizarro and his crew enter was hurried, missing its pomp, swagger, and menace. Many onsets were faulty, which is, again, rare for the VPO.

Yet Welser-Möst was never less than adequate, and he had a big moment in Act II. So did Beethoven. The orchestra played another of those four overtures — the one known as Leonore No. 3 — as used to be done with some regularity in Fidelio, but which is almost never done today. Here, Welser-Möst conducted his heart out, and the VPO played in like manner. They brought the house down.

The last pages of the opera, sad to say, did not shine, bathe, and uplift as they should. They were fast, hard, and undifferentiated. But I could appreciate Welser-Möst’s energy, and it crossed my mind that he was trying to make up for, or distract from, the travesty on the stage.

In the title role of Leonore, a.k.a. Fidelio, was Adrianne Pieczonka, the Canadian soprano. You have heard bigger Leonores, but few so sincere and affecting. I had forgotten how moving “Komm, Hoffnung” can be. And Pieczonka’s voice has plenty of cutting power.

Florestan was Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor, a huge star over here (and a big enough one in America, too). I have often written of the Cult of Kaufmann. I don’t quite get it. He is a fine tenor, and I have heard him give superb performances, as well as mediocre ones. He is probably the best Parsifal (in Wagner’s opera of the same name) we have. But a cult?

In any case, he sang like he deserved one in this Fidelio. He is underpowered for the role: an essentially lyric tenor, rather than a heroic one. (Incidentally, an historic heroic Florestan, Jon Vickers, died in July.) But he uses to maximum effect what he has. Nor did he strain, on this evening. His crescendo at the beginning of Florestan’s monologue — “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” — was memorable. As an actor, he executed Claus Guth’s plan to a T. Or so it seemed to me, from the seats.

I will shaft the rest of the cast to return to the production. Operas usually give directors a lot of leeway. That is certainly true of Fidelio. But there is leeway and there is hijacking.

A longtime patron here in Salzburg reminisced almost tearfully about the 1950s production of Fidelio by Herbert von Karajan (who of course conducted too). On the stage at the end, she said, you saw the light and redemption of the music and the story. Everything matched. This was Beethoven’s true Fidelio.

Now, we should beware nostalgia, and we should recognize that some traditions exist to be junked. But a modicum of fidelity, in an opera production, is desirable, and needed.

“The faddists are so clever,” said Lorin Maazel to me in a 2009 interview, “because they paint you into a corner.” Their trick, he elaborated, is to say, “If you object to us, you’re a conservative, you’re a fuddy-duddy, you’re a living anachronism! What we do is new!” Maazel was a major conductor here in Salzburg, as he was all over the world. He died last summer.

It was because of “Euro-dreck,” as he called it, that he stopped coming to Salzburg. Guth and his Fidelio are not Euro-dreck. Herr Guth is a serious and talented man. But I wish he and his confreres would apply their talents to new works — plays, operas, TV shows, videos? — of their own. If you don’t like Beethoven’s happy ending, don’t go to, or direct, Beethoven’s opera. (Which, not that anyone asked, is, gun to my head, my favorite opera. Probably.)

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