There’s a danger with The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s aims and ideals being so high and laudable that sentiment eclipses the musicmaking. A performance of Beethoven’s great hymn to freedom and love, his only opera Fidelio, on a significant occasion (Daniel Barenboim’s avowed final appearance with the orchestra he founded 10 years ago) intensified the temptation to hyperbolise.
There seemed a wilfulness to the exchange of the usual Fidelio overture for the longer Leonore No. 3 and in the transposition of the opening Duet and Aria. Add to this the inclusion of Edward Said’s ruminative commentary (giving Leonore’s perspective on the story) in place of the dialogue and the evening could have looked like an appropriation of Beethoven’s work for other means. Fortunately, Said’s words did illuminate and the cutting of the spoken text allowed the work to flow on effortlessly.
This was a Fidelio strong on reflection but less so on dramatic drive. The sometimes leisurely tempi Daniel Barenboim adopted allowed us to wallow in the composer’s wondrous melodies and there was much beautiful playing, not least in the divine Act 1 Quartet. However, speedy at other times, this was an often lightweight reading, nowhere less evident than in the Pizarro of Gerd Grochowski, who just didn’t have the weight, authority or volume for one of opera’s great baddies. A bluff John Tomlinson was more forceful as Rocco.
Adriana Kucerova’s sole adherence to the score in the far from demanding role of Marzelline was a mystery, although the physical contrast between her and Stephan Rügamer’s Jaquino – she pert and pretty (quite ravishing in fact) and he gangly and balding – made sense of their rocky relationship.
Fidelio is about the romantic leads, of course, and as Leonore the performance had one of the world’s leading dramatic sopranos in Waltraud Meier. There’s a throatiness in Meier’s voice which often prevents this most riveting of acting singers from having a truly beautiful sound but its expressiveness is undoubted. Her “Abscheulicher” unsurprisingly earned a massive ovation.
There was a lightness to Simon O’Neill’s ardent and ringing Florestan, which had everything except the gravity and sense of suffering of a Vickers.
Barenboim was as energetic as ever, flinging himself around his podium with abandon and drawing some fine sounds from his band of young artists. The BBC Singers and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir sang the triumphant final chorus with heartfelt gusto and helped turn this into an ultimately uplifting and memorable event.