This month’s series of Beethoven concerts by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra concludes the celebratory twentieth season for its conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a milestone that distinguishes him as the longest-tenured director among all major orchestras in the US. Famous for his interpretations of Mahler and beloved by his Bay Area fans (who call him, like a cable-news channel, MTT), the accomplished conductor is now past his seventieth year but still preternaturally youthful in spirit. The Beethoven festival has offered a multi-media performance of the Missa Solemnis and the Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral) and will round out its tour of the composer’s works this weekend with a performance of the Fifth Symphony (Saturday, June 27) flanked by a concert performance of the opera Fidelio (Thursday, Friday, and Sunday), featuring Nina Stemme in the title role as Leonore.
The Swedish-born soprano is among the most effervescent and arresting performers in opera today. She stuns audiences as Brünnhilde (in the 2011 Ring cycle in San Francisco), Isolde (in Tristan und Isolde at London’s Royal Opera House in 2014), and Elektra (upcoming next spring at the New York Metropolitan Opera). Having concluded performances earlier this month as Leonore at the Wiener Staatsoper (a reviewer at bachtrack.com wrote of her “brilliant and yet burnished voice”), she now brings her gifts for the role to the Bay Area.
Fidelio was Beethoven’s only completed venture into operatic form, but some critics find it wanting. Originally composed in 1805 but substantially revised in 1814, it has flummoxed audiences with its apparent disunity in plot. Act One begins in a spirit of eighteenth-century comedy: Jaquino loves Marzelline but Marzelline loves Fidelio, but Fidelio is in fact Leonore disguised, faithful to her imprisoned husband Florestan. Act Two takes a turn into high drama and political heroism: Leonore must rescue Florestan and defeat the corrupt Don Pizzarro before he kills him. The absent minister Don Fernando returns and grants freedom for all the prisoners. The original notices were displeased. It hardly helped that the opera saw its 1805 premiere under trying circumstances—Napoleon’s army had just occupied Vienna and the usual crowd of theatergoers had fled the city. The revised version was performed in 1814 to an audience still dizzy from Napoleon’s defeat. Thayer’s Life of Beethoven sets the standard for a mixed review: “Inborn genius for musical composition, untiring industry, and the ambition to rival Cherubini in his own field, sufficiently explain the extraordinary merits of this work of Beethoven; want of practice and experience in operatic writing, its defects.”
True, the opera presented its composer with endless trouble. There are no less than three alternate overtures to the opera’s earlier version (then titled Leonore) in addition to the official overture to Fidelio. And the vocal lines are beautiful but precarious; Leonore’s concluding duet with Florestan, “O Namenlose Freude!,” makes terrific demands on both singers. But much of the criticism is misplaced. The historian Paul Robinson discerned a deeper unity in the plot, which opens with a Mozart-like comedy of romantic confusion only to emphasize the political upheaval to come. As the philosopher Ernst Bloch observed, Fidelio anticipates “every future storming of the Bastille.” The prisoner’s chorus from Act One expresses a hymn to freedom—“Oh what joy! In the free air to breathe with ease!”—whose full meaning remains unfulfilled.
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