The Theater an der Wien and Ludwig van Beethoven have a long history. Not only were the first two versions of Fidelio (aka Leonore) performed there in 1805 and 1806, the irascible composer actually lived on the premises for over a year to the consternation of management and fellow tenants. To describe the November 1805 première as a “failure” would be an understatement. Beethoven was so frustrated with his magnum opus he spent ten years rewriting it before the opera finally triumphed at the Kärntnertortheater during the Congress of Vienna celebrations in 1814.

René Jacobs © Molina Visuals
René Jacobs
© Molina Visuals

The opportunity to hear how Beethoven originally envisaged this paean to liberty and marital devotion should sound was of considerable interest as multitudinous changes between the three versions were both infinite in detail and fundamental in form.

Using period instruments and the 1805 autograph score, this concert performance should have been one of authenticity and a faithful recreation of Beethoven’s only opera. This did not happen. Acclaimed conductor René Jacobs chose to rewrite the dialogue himself and the result was far from felicitous. To paraphrase Leopold II’s apocryphal disparagement of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, “too many words my dear Jacobs”.

There were some novel textual inclusions such as Rocco worrying that smoking was damaging his health but the lengthy spoken dialogue seriously hindered the musical flow and did little to enhance the dramaturgy. Following the recent Currentzis fad of interposing extra-partitura passages into the extant score, the Belgian maestro did his own tinkering with the composer’s meticulous music and the opera began with Marzelline singing a cute Beethoven Liedchen called “Zärtliche Liebe”. The feisty gaoler’s daughter also joined her money-hungry father singing the last words of the “das Gold” aria in a kind of improvised mini-duet which made for a plausible “like-father-like-daughter” dramaturgy but was of questionable musical integrity.

Opening with the Leonore Overture no. 2 Jacobs drew some sensitive playing from the Freiburger Barockorchester and the valveless horns managed to navigate the more perilous passages with minimal muffed notes. First Baroque blockflöte was memorably dulcet.

Jacobs’ tempi in the overture were broad and well measured but this was not the case for almost all subsequent vocal sections. Marzelline’s “O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint” aria is marked Andante con moto but rocketed along at such a pace it seemed the infatuated adolescent was more a libidinous libertine. Jacobs continued the galloping tempi almost until “O namenlose Freude” which seriously marred the gentle lilting triple-time “Um in der Ehe froh zu leben” duet between Leonore and Marzelline which Beethoven deleted in the 1814 version. The plaintive solo violin accompaniment had noticeable intonation problems. The “Gut, Söhnchen, gut” trio was so fast it was almost unintelligible. Throughout the performance the batonless Jacobs barely looked up from the score.

Vocally things were much more satisfactory with all principals miraculously surviving the breakneck beat. Robin Johannsen sang an impressive Marzelline with pristine musicality and appropriate pertness. Johannes Weisser managed to sing rather than bark the dastardly Don Pizarro role and his rollicking “Jetzt eilet auf die Zinnen”  aria with chorus (cut for the 1814 version) was resonant and suitably snarly. Dimitry Ivashchenko was a sympathetic and mellifluous Rocco. Maximilian Schmitt’s lyric Florestan revealed vocal sensitivity and an elegant cantilena. In the 1805 version there is no endless stentorian “Gott…” to open the dungeon scene but a dramatically more logical mezzoforte dotted minim four tones lower. After all, this is a prisoner who after two years of slow starvation is barely able to stand up, let alone sound like Siegfried. As his indomitable wife, Marlis Petersen was an impeccable Leonore. The technical demands of the extended “Komm, Hoffnung” scena seemed effortless with flawless scale passages and leaps. The lyrical “O Gott! Welch ein Augenblick” passage was deeply moving. The Zürcher Sing-Akademie chorus was outstanding and displayed exemplary diction with commendable dynamic nuance.

Cheers and rapturous applause greeted this “failed” opera which goes to show what a difference 215 years can make. 

***11