The benefits of opera in concert are inestimable, and tonight’s opportunity to hear a familiar classic like Fidelio without the disadvantage of today’s penchant for radical productions allowed us to focus entirely on Beethoven’s music undistracted. Ultimately the result of two previous versions of his opera Leonore (1805 and 1806), Fidelio (1814) is still far from perfect, but has for generations occupied a secure place in the repertory of every major opera company – presumably as a nod to Beethoven and his only contribution to opera, rather than on the actual merits of the music or plot. Consequently a successful performance of this opera relies on the combined forces of conductor, soloists, orchestra and chorus, and tonight we were fortunate to have all of these.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg

In terms of orchestral commitment tonight’s performance was stellar, and conductor Juanjo Mena gleaned from the pages of Beethoven’s score a powerfully emotional and dramatic intensity, extracting tenderness, jealousy, greed, love and joy in impressive quantity. Following the overture, we heard the best singing of the evening in Lucy Hall and Benjamin Hulett’s duet “Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind mir allein” for Marzelline and Jaquino. Both possess young, fresh and lyrical voices, with excellent diction and a real sense of engagement with the words and music. In her aria “O wär ich schone mit dir vereint” Hall excelled in applying a tasteful vibrato to a crystal clear tone. The introduction of Stephen Richardson’s Rocco and Detlef Roth’s wicked Don Pizarro were welcome additions to the vocal ensemble, both singing very well, and with entertainingly characterful interpretations of their arias.

The score at its most tender renders two significant moments, both found in Act I: firstly the quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” and secondly the Prisoner’s Chorus “O welche Lust”, both of which were delivered with heartstring pulling clarity.

Rebecca von Lipinski, as our heroine Leonore, fought with the orchestra to be heard. It was evident throughout that this was not the fault of the orchestral dynamic, but rather that Lipinski didn’t have the vocal range and dramatic intensity required, as a struggle to compete with other singers in duets with Florestan, or vocal ensembles like the quartet, also appeared difficult.

In Florestan’s dramatic opening of Act II, “Gott, welch Dunkel hier”, tenor Stuart Skelton also misjudged the mark, thinking to begin pianissimo on a top G, and intensify the moment and drama with a crescendo to forte and emotional agony. The idea was a good one, but Skelton missed the note, and by sliding into it the magic was lost. Hereafter his performance did not seem to fully recover and, despite the orchestra’s insistence on lifting the score out of the depths of his prison, Skelton left me wanting more drama. The remainder of Act II, in which the plot develops predictably to a happy ending, jollied along before ending in an impressive choral blast from the London Symphony Chorus.

Dramatically stunted and musically underwhelming save for a few moments of inspired emotional intensity, the score of Fidelio seems incarcerated somewhere between the ever fresh, melodic buffo lyricism of Mozart and Haydn, and the new dramatic thrust of serious German Romanticism that would eventually develop into Wagner. Nonetheless, the BBC Philharmonic gave an excellent performance, and I would heartily encourage further operas in concert.