The convoluted story of the evolution of Beethoven’s single opera is relatively well known. Based on a libretto adapted by Joseph Sonnleithner from the French of Jean-Nicholas Bouilly, Leonore had its premiere in 1805. It was indifferently received by an audience mostly composed of Napoleonic officers stationed in occupied Vienna. Friends persuaded Beethoven to make radical alterations to the score. There was a new version in 1806. After additional transformations, the opera, now entitled Fidelio, received a successful first performance in 1814. Despite indications that the composer might have had his own qualms about his later changes, there is a general belief that Fidelio is the “mature” version that Beethoven blessed for further generations and the one we should treasure. Leonore is considered to be an unripe work and, hence, rarely performed.

Fidelio is not very close to its original, longer alternative. In the composer’s own words “almost no musical piece remained the same and more than half of the opera had been completely re-worked”. Shrinking the original three acts to just two, eliminating or shortening many of the initial numbers, diminishing the psychological depth of some characters (Marzelline) in favour of portraying personages that are standard bearers of good or bad ideals, the differences are major indeed.

On Friday night, the Freiburger Barockorchester and the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, conducted by René Jacobs, offered listeners in Bucharest the opportunity to witness a remarkable rendition of Leonore and – assuming they are familiar enough with Fidelio’s plot and music – to decide for themselves which version they prefer. It should be pretty obvious to anyone that Beethoven eliminated at least two high quality numbers: Rocco’s “Hat man nicht auch Gold”; and, especially, the second-act Marzelline–Leonore duo, “Um in der Ehe froh zu leben”, where the two voices are accompanied by solo violin (Anne Katharina Schreiber) and cello (Guido Larisch).

In rendering this original version, René Jacobs made several choices. He picked Leonore II – “the most modern and the most convincing”, “a tone poem avant la lettre” in the conductor’s words – as the opera’s overture. He “modernised” the spoken text, with dubious results. He also introduced several mise-en-scène elements, neither of them adding too much to the overall perception of the performance. Jacobs occasionally asked the soloists to sing from the back of the stage, muffling the sound of their voices. In the third act, he made Florestan appear with his hands bound by a red ribbon and placed little lamps on each instrumentalist’s stand. Musically, he rearranged his excellent period-instrument ensemble, bringing woodwinds to the front, opposite the violins, and placing the double basses behind them, thus drawing more attention to the wondrously delicate sound of flutes and oboes. In a brisk-tempo interpretation, the orchestra sounded well-balanced, with a clear but firm sound, never covering the singers. There were a few hesitations in the very difficult lines for valveless horns, but those didn’t impact the overall quality of playing.

In a role that is more important here than in Fidelio, soprano Robin Johannsen brought forward both Marzelline’s modesty and her flirtatious nature. Her “O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint” was rendered with great musicality and attention to details, even if Jacobs’ tempi were – as often during the evening – a tad hurried. Warm-voiced bass-baritone Christian Immler underlined the innate compassionate nature of Rocco, Marzelline’s father. Johann Weisser’s Don Pizarro had a powerful stage presence, even if the baritone occasionally pushed his instrument too hard. His “Jetzt eilet auf die Zinnen” is another of the remarkable arias that Beethoven cut in his final version. Soprano Birgitte Christensen portrayed well Leonore’s dignity and devotion. In the difficult “Komm, Hoffnung”, she demonstrated a great ability to control her output across the entire span, from forceful to sotto voce. As Florestan, Joshua Ellicott was, arguably, the most distinguished of the evening’s soloists. He displayed both vocal sensitivity and the attributes of a Heldentenor in the rather smallish role. The young tenor Nikolaus Pfannkuch was a reliable Jaquino, Rocco’s assistant, and Torben Jürgens appeared in the quasi-deus ex machina role of Don Fernando.