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Gardiner and Leonore hit the road

by John Sidgwick

LONDON - Leonore, Beethoven's first version of his one and only opera, Fidelio, toured Europe and the United States in a semi-staged version over the summer period of this year. The peformers were the Monteverdi Choir, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and a distinguished team of soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, the stage director being Annabel Arden. I had the good fortune to attend many of the performances in such diverse settings as the Opéra de Lille in France, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Lincoln Center in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London. Although the perforamnces were almost always a multi faceted pleasure from the musical point of view, the same could not be said of the introduction of an actor impersonating Beethoven and commenting on the action. This was an experiment that was generally far from convincing, even though Gardiner feels that it all came right in the end. I called on Gardiner, following the completion of the Deutsche Grammophon recording sessions of Leonore in London in September.

John Sidgwick : This was one of the rare occasions on which Leonore was given a proper airing. Comparisons with Fidelioare inevitable. What are the pluses and minuses of Leonore as opposed to the later version?

John Eliot Gardiner : My first reaction was that it is impossible to draw up a profit and loss account. As a musician, I was much drawn to the later revisions by Beethoven because there is something wonderfully well-honed and polished about the later version. But the more I looked at the earliest version of Leonore, the more convinced I was that here there was a work of total integrity and total inspiration on Beethoven's part which was, I feel, severely dented and diluted by subsequent revisions which were made really under duress.When he was writing Leonore, it was at the time of his maximum enthusiasm for all things French, for all things that in an intellectual way emanated from the French Revolution. So far as opera was concerned, he looked upon the libretto by Bouilly for Cherubini's Les deux journées as the best he had ever read - and this from somebody who considered that Cosi fan tuttte was an extremely trite opera! Bouilly was dealing very much with the heroism associated with the individual emancipated from social restraints.For Beethoven, who was very confused intellectually and even more confused politically, this was heady stuff. The whole notion of the social fragmentation that was generated by the French Revolution focused more and more not only on the problems of the individual and on the potential of the individual but also on the complications of human relationships. Leonore, then, is not just a matter of an ideal of conjugal love or of the ideal of womanhood, it is more to do with the complexity of those issues. When Beethoven came to revise Leonorein 1814, his ideas on the subject had changed and I suspect that he was in an angry, anti-Bonapartist, anti-French mood, so that in his mind, the political tyranny of Don Pizzaro was associated with Napoleon.

Sidgwick : There are several pieces in Leonore that were later excised and that are nevertheless of haunting beauty - for example, the duet for Leonore and Marzelline with a solo accompaniment of violin and cello. It is a divine piece of music.

Gardiner : Not only that. It has a powerful dramatic function. It balances the darkness of the duet between Don Pizzaro and Rocco which immediately preceded it and it prepares the way for Leonore's out pouring in her great aria, Komm Hoffnung. Without it, the whole balance of the piece issent out of kilter. The effect of the duet is in fact two fold. Firstly, it isolates Leonore and distances her from the petit bourgeois domesticity of the first act. Secondly, it means that her subsequent aria is not simply a reaction to the Don Pizzaro/Rocco duet and therefore anticipating the conflict that sheis later to have with Don Pizzaro and that comes to a head in the third act.

Sidgwick : Leonore certainly works beautifully from a dramatic point of view. Are there other instances of more effective management of the plot than in Fidelio?

Gardiner : Yes. Take the moment when Don Pizarro comes down to the dungeon to deal with Florestan and Leonore intervenes. In Fidelio, Rocco doesn't grab the gun from her, but makes a sort of sign saying that "all will be well, don't worry". She then sings with Florestan O namenloseFreude and that seems already to be the dénouement. In Leonore, there is far more dramatic point to the whole thing because Rocco seizes the gun from her hand, lashes out and she faints. Then you hear Florestan, with that extraordinary oboe obligato, a very moving accompagnato, trying to reassess his whole position vis-à-vis his wife who has apparently come to rescue him and then has fallen. Is she dead, or is she not dead? Then, when she comes to,they realize that their situation is double-edged. On the one hand, it is wonderful to be together again, it is a reunion, on the other hand, the trumpet signal is probably the signal for their deaths, so that it is an "adieu" as well as a renunion, and that gives it a huge dramatic edge which is lost in the subsequent version.

Sidgwick : At times I got the impression that Leonore was a sort of triumph of womanhood - and this impression was enhanced by the quite remarkable performance of the women of the Monteverdi Choir, who were not only splendid as singers but utterly convincing and committed as actors. Do you feel that it is somewhat fanciful to use the expression "triumph of womanhood"?

Gardiner : I do think that it is fanciful because it was not a triumph of womanhood in Beethoven's mind, even though he did have the very idealized concept of the "immortal beloved". And it is certainly not a celebration of womanhood in a way that so many Mozart operas are. I do not think that Beethoven had the ability to get under the skin of his female characters in the way that Handel or Monteverdi or Mozart did. I think that his empathy was for the individual regardless of gender and, in a way, there is a bit of Beethoven himself in all his characters. I do agree with you, however, that in this first version of Leonore, there is very much more sense of identification with the two female characters because Marzelline is a crucial element. It is her yearnings to escape from this petit bourgeois world that are given extra prominence and extra poignancy by the expansion of her role; this follows directly from Bouilly through Beethoven's first librettist,Sonnleithner. It is very significant to me that the subtitle of the opera was changed from L'Amour conjugal in 1805 to Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebein 1815. In other words, Beethoven's côterie of supporters and friends were trying to bolster the concept of heroism; the idea, therefore, of the heroic self-sacrifice had to be under lined rather than the actual essence of relationships that is encapsulated in the words L'Amour conjugal.

Sidgwick : What about your choice of having an actor playing the role of Beethoven and presenting the action to the audience? It was clear that many ofthe audiences were non plussed by this. So far as I was concerned, it just didn't work-and at times I found it almost embarrassing.

Gardiner : An essential difference between the early Leonore andFidelio is that the complexity of the characterisation is written into the music in the first version where as in the second version, where Beethoven reduced and concentrated the musical expression, there is a great deal of the complexity that is pushed into the spoken dialogue - and I think that this is aweakness. Early on, we took the decision that we were going to jettis on all the spoken dialogue. I think it was a brave decision. It didn't always work. You yourself followed it through different permutations. The thinking behind it was that the music should basically carry the burden of the action and of the expression but that it was good to have an interlocutor speaking in the vernacular in different countries. After all, we performed it in seven different countries, Italy, France, Holland, Germany, England, Austria and the United States.

Sidgwick : You had a bit of a disaster in Lille, and then Annabel stepped in to do the commentary. For me, it was the best way of doing it - and getting rid of the Beethoven character to boot.

Gardiner : First of all, Annabel Arden is a very fine actor, and secondly, she did it with total integrity and respect for the music with just the right amount of dramatic impetus, concision and reticence.

Sidgwick : That was exactly the point: reticence. She was not imposing herself. It seemed to me that the other actors felt that they simply had to "act"- and in so doing, they spoilt the balance.

Gardiner : I have to say that I found Christoph Buntzer terribly touching and he got better. In Ludwigsburg, he over acted a bit and was too melodramatic - and the Germans have a real aversion for pathos in an actor inthat situation. It really curls their toes up. For the recording - for I absolutely insisted that we should have him in the recording - he rewrote the text and understated everything. I found it deeply moving and I can't wait to hear how it will sound.

Sidgwick : You spent a long time preparing for these performances of Leonore and you have time and again acknowledged the debt you owe to Nicholas McNair for having ensured that your presentation was given the advantage of the utmost in musicological back-up. I wondered if as a result of taking the work on a long tour, you had obtained new insights into the work and into Beethoven himself which had not occurred to you during the many months of preparation.

Gardiner : Quite definitely. I adore Beethoven as a composer and I'm very drawn to him as a man. But I have to say that there are periods of his life that I find more sympathetic than others. And I do find that the period of 1804 to 1806, which includes the third and fifth symphonies and these first versions of Leonore, particularly seductive and convincing. You feel that he is really tussling with his own individual problems as an artist and an individual, and that he is also "high" on the ideas coming out of France. Also, he has woven a lot of things that I find enchanting in a great deal of French music into his own music both in the abstract symphonic form and into an opera.Where as I have to say that when he is no longer in his radical phase, when he is in a reactionary phase in 1814 and writing such pieces as Germania, it's the closest thing to fascist music that you can imagine coming from a great composer, and I find it deeply disturbing. The other thing that I learnt - I suppose I knew it intuitively, but it was made manifest by the experience of this summer - is that the form of semi-staging (not a term that I like,incidentally) that we were obliged to resort to because of the variety of venues is far from being a pis-aller. It has its own validity. It strips away all artifice and concentrates on the bones, the sinews and the fibre of the musical drama. It homes in on the orchestra as the engine-room, the power-house of the drama. Also, it means that the singers can be perceived against this orchestral background, which is a great advantage.

Sidgwick : And a closing word on Leonore?

Gardiner : Why not leave it to Romain Rolland, who wrote nearly seventy years ago: "His Leonore is a monument of the anguish of the period,of the oppressed soul and its appeal to liberty - a formidable crescendos welling from suffering to joy, traversing the road of hope and combat - an ascent from the abyss to the clear sky".


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