Ludwig van Beethoven: Leonore, opus 72 (original 1805 version)
Marlis Petersen (Leonore), Maximilian Schmitt (Florestan), Dimitry Ivashchenko (Rocco), Robin Johannsen (Marzelline), Johannes Weisser (Don Pizarro), Tareq Nazmi (Don Fernando), Johannes Chum (Jaquino), Freiburger Barockorchester, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Florian Helgath (chorus master), René Jacobs (conductor)
Live recording: Philharmonie de Paris, France (November 7, 2017) – 140’
2 CDs harmonia mundi HMM 902414.15 (Distributed by PIAS) – Booklet in French, English and German – Libretto in French, German and English
Ludwig van Beethoven’s sole opera had its own tumultuous history with a series of revisions that coursed over the period of eight years. Opera houses generally embrace the 1814 Fidelio two act version especially when a production packs such force, such as Pier’Alli’s Los Angeles take in 2007. On the surface, that suffices, but when digging back into the original 1805 Leonore [as it was titled], there are convincing arguments of thought and content. René Jacobs presents a different case, whereby he is quoted, “…1805 Leonore - I would like to argue the case for the last-named, since I consider it to be the most successful…” harmonia mundi unleashes a powerful perspective under M. Jacobs, factoring in four integral components: the cuts, the overture, dramaturgy and the finale.
If the original “dragged” a bit, it was with just reason. Squeezing Leonore into two acts resulted in elimination of two arias, Rocco’s “Gold Aria” and Marzelline/Leonore duet, “Um in der Ehe froh zu leben”, as definitive examples. These two [numbers] contributed to Leonore's longeur without any sizeable benefit (at first blush), but the music is light in atmosphere. Robin Johannsen’s and Marlis Petersen’s delectable interchange is strengthened by Leonore’s (Fidelio’s) masculine (cello) replies while Marzelline’s feminine responses (violin) dwell upon her dreamy bliss. That may not seem pertinent to the opera, but it impressively reinforces the tangential paths both are taking. More importantly, it builds on Leonore’s determination. Reconstituting 150 plus bars makes sense.
With four options, René Jacobs’ Leonore II Overture gives the most dramaturgical path into the opera and a “beeline” into Act III’s gargantuan force without the need to recapitulate the music: we hear and feel direct boldness coming at us from every which way.
The most compelling factor deals with Leonore in three distinct segments, jumping and building from one to another. Mlle Johannsen’s silvery and chirpy timbre rings of domestic bliss, interspersed by a comical spiel with her father. Though the investment mildly sidetracks from the opera’s core, the drama ultimately builds and has a cumulative effect. The act, while laboriously divesting, has passages of sublimity, and René Jacobs loosens this image by maintaining a brisk tempo.
Along with its horn trimmings and burnishing brilliances, Marlis Petersen’s “Abscheulicher!” is bold and sharp. As the undeterred héroïne, there’s nobody better suited to sing Leonore as she unwaveringly sings away at her notes. The Freiburger Barockorchester’s clarion horns bring out Mlle Petersen’s fabulous melismatic pulsations while the lead-in to Florian Helgath’s gorgeous melding of male voices gives a generous lift to the apex.
Florestan is left to occupy Act III. After the previous act’s sudden pinnacle, the shrieking horns give an edge of doom to the incarcerated man. Maximillan Schmitt rounds out Florestan with hope and enduring light as he drapes the airways with an abundant push from his past that lifts into the present. Beethoven’s Melodrama in Scene Two contains highly effective music to provide a dramatic backdrop to Leonore’s and Rocco’s spoken text. It should be pointed out that, for this recording, Sonnleithner’s libretto was ‘massaged into modernity’, bringing forth better relevancy and universality. The tension within the last 20 minutes of Leonore are immensely proportionate. Here, Maestro Jacobs makes minor revisions to Beethoven’s original written content.
The remaining male voices pour color into Beethoven’s score like never before: Tareq Nazmi’s penetrating bass voice governs with ministerial jurisdiction above all others while panicky strings lend darker complexions of Johannes Weisser’s sinister motivations. Johannes Chum sings on and on and through the delightful quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” and its masterful layering of voices, even though the buffoonish and menial gatekeeper, Joaquin, is left ‘out to dry’. Some of Beethoven’s characters are seemingly irrelevant, but their operatic positions have an indirect objective in cementing Leonore.
But from a purist’s point-of-view, harmonia mundi's release is revealing, and it reinvigorates the belief that Ludwig van Beethoven should be heard from the absolute (well, almost absolute.) Searching for truth, René Jacobs and his cast of superlative singers make the entire visit a fabulous experience.