Leonore (1805)

Opera Lafayette’s March 2020 production of Beethoven’s 1805 precursor to Fidelio; Leonore, was reviewed by Patrick Dillon in the Summer 2020 edition of Opera Canada. It’s now been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Watching it on video I think tends to highlight further the weaknesses described by Patrick. It can’t seem to make up it’s mind what it is; musically or dramatically. Is it a Singspiel or something grander? The dramatic focus drifts, somewhat bathetically, from the domestic comedy of the Leonore/Marcellina/Jacquino love triangle to the “faithful and virtuous wife” theme to, almost, entering more involved philosophical/political territory before relapsing into a sort of cop out ending. The (very real) strengths of the final version of Fidelio are not much in evidence here.

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The production, filmed at Kaye Playhouse in New York, uses a pretty abstract single set of a few moveable geometric elements for all the scenes backed up by essentially uncontroversial costuming. One suspects the budget was limited and that’s rather emphasised on video where one is perhaps used to more opulence. Direction (Oriol Thomas) is pretty straightforward with few gimmicks which works well enough though the final scene  becomes, unintentionally, comic at just the wrong moment. It’s essentially a problem of the libretto rather than the direction but just as the tension is building; can Leonore save Florestan?, Pizarro gets the classic super-villain moment where, instead of despatching his victim, he sings an aria about how clever he is for just long enough for Leonore to appear. This is reinforced by the follow up where Leonore, Florestan and Rocco line up facing the audience with Pizarro slightly behind them and out of Leonore’s eyeline even though she is (vaguely) pointing a pistol at him. With one last twirl of his moustache he makes his (albeit temporary) escape! It’s not a big deal but it’s emblematic of what doesn’t quite work in this piece.

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The cast though are solid. Nathalie Paulin manages the rather awkwardly written title role very skilfully. She’s best heard perhaps in the tricky slow coloratura of the aria “Komm Hoffnung” but she’s excellent throughout. We don’t see our Florestan, Jean-Michel Richer until Act 3 but when we do he’s suitably heroic. Stephen Hegedus, as Rocco, sings and acts very well but really looks much too young for Rocco the jailor who, the libretto makes clear, is old and feeble. Matthew Scolin’s Pizarro is, I think, a matter of taste. It’s a moustache twirling, sneering, swaggering take on the role. One feels that had railways been invented in 1805 he’d have Leonore tied to the tracks! Still, it’s pretty consistent with everything else, Pascale Beaudin sings sweetly as Marcellina and is very cute. The minor roles are fine and the Opera Lafayette Orchestra (on period instruments) and Chorus are very good. Ryan Harper; Opera Lafayette’s driving force, pulls everything together nicely.

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Video direction is unobtrusive and technical quality on Blu-ray is very good although there’s only stereo sound (no surround track). The documentation is excellent with an aria by aria explanation of how the piece differs from Fidelio and from its original source material. So, it’s a worthy effort to delve into the ur-Fidelio but the weaknesses of the piece; musically and dramatically, make it perhaps more interesting to the scholar than the average opera goer.

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This review first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Opera Canada.

Catalogue number: Naxos Blu-ray NBD0121V

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