On Sunday, March 5, Washington Concert Opera performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, Leonore…except that the maestro wrote four versions of this opera, including different overtures for each, and all were performed separately over the ten years he took to arrive at the final version, whose name he changed to Fidelio (1814). The WCO presented the 1805 version of Leonore differing in number of acts and overture from the final version, as well as a few other significant variations. The character Fidelio is really Leonore dressed as a man. Relax, she did it for noble reasons, to gain entrance to a prison where her husband was a political prisoner during the French Revolution. The story revolves around her heroic effort to save his life, free him, and ward off the affections of the jail keeper’s daughter who wants to marry Fidelio. Love, justice, high moral character, and the will of God win in the end, as Beethoven would have it. The important take away point here is that if you have seen one Leonore, you have not seen them all, and if you have seen Fidelio, you have not seen Leonore. And it is even more complicated as I mention later. Maybe we should give Beethoven credit for four operas, or at least two. However, you often get to see Fidelio, a mainstay of the traditional opera repertoire, but you very rarely get to attend a performance of Leonore. For that we are now indebted to Washington Concert Opera; a part of WCO's mission is to "provide a secure home for rarely performed operatic masterpieces."
I wrote about the Washington Concert Opera in August of last year based on research I had done. I had hoped to attend WCO’s Herodiade presented in November, however, knee replacement surgery required a longer recovery than I expected. But last Sunday my wife, son, and I trekked down to Lisner Auditorium in DC for our first experience with concert opera. Frankly, I was a little blown away. It was a much richer experience than I had anticipated. WNO’s motto is that it is all about the music, and while I agree the emphasis is on the music since the singers don’t need to be concerned about costume changes, action, and placement on the stage, it is also about story telling (the singers are in character) and about the visual pleasure of watching the singers and the orchestra, which is placed on the stage. The singers' interplay, emotions, and excitement are readily communicated to the audience. For me, this was one of the most enjoyable opera performances of the season. My entire family was enthusiastic about both the performance and the experience. WCO has announced their productions for next year which represent an opportunity to hear two bel canto operas not often performed: La Straniera by Vincenzo Bellini in November and Maria di Rohan by Gaetano Donizetti in February. Concert opera is now enthusiastically added to my opera itinerary.
The experience was also enhanced in no small measure by the fact that the music being played and sung was Beethoven’s, and among his best. The elegant construction and power of Beethoven’s music was ably demonstrated by the vocalists and the orchestra. Conductor Antony Walker was certainly emphatic in signals to the orchestra sections; there were times I think his feet left the floor (would not have seen that at a staged opera where the orchestra is in a pit in front of the stage). Leonore was played by soprano Marjorie Owens, and Marzelline, the jailor’s daughter, was sung by soprano Celena Shafer. Ms. Shafer’s acting pushed the edges of her character a bit and Ms. Owens, on the other hand, was noticeably understated early on. However, Ms. Shafer sang beautifully with a lovely voice, and when Ms. Owens moved into her later arias and duets, the power, technical accomplishment, and expressivity of her voice owned the stage. Young tenor Jonas Hacker ably sang the role of Jaquino, a suitor of Marzelline (and fulfilled WCO's mission of introducing emerging artists). Other principals, bass Eric Halfvarson as the jailor, Rocco, bass-baritone Alan Held as Don Pizarro, the corrupt prison governor, tenor Simon O’Neill as Floristan, Leonore’s husband, and bass Nicholas Masters as Don Fernando, the just governor were all effective in their roles. O’Neill’s arias, especially duets with Ms. Owens were powerful and moving. It was a feather in WCO’s cap to have Alan Held performing; he recently played Wotan in Washington National Opera’s highly acclaimed Ring Cycle. The performance was supported and enhanced by men’s and women’s chorus of WCO, around forty members altogether. Leonore offers a stunning ending with principals, chorus, and the orchestra on stage together, providing a rising crescendo of Beethoven’s powerful music. One could not help being thrilled and impressed.
You undoubtedly noticed that my title refers to my “second” Leonore. If you thought four Leonores by Beethoven was confusing, well, It turns out that four opera composers in all wrote works based on this story by French playwright and librettist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly; Joseph Sonnleithner also contributed to the libretto for Beethoven's Leonore. Two weeks earlier my wife and I had seen our first Leonore, that by composer Pierre Gavaux and librettist Bouilly, performed by Opera Lafayette. Thus, we had a chance to compare the version by composer Gavaux with that of Beethoven. Truthfully, we enjoyed both, and they don’t substitute for each other, despite telling essentially the same story. Opera Lafayette did a great job and a great service performing their Leonore. I agree with the critics that Beethoven’s Leonore is the stronger opera, but my wife refused to name a winner. She enjoyed the romance more in Gavaux’s version, which is in French and emphasizes the human interactions. Beethoven’s Leonore is in German and emphasized morality and justice more. I liked the music in the Gavaux version also. Gavaux’s Leonore is not often performed, but if you have the opportunity, attend his Leonore as well for a delightful evening.
My Leonore saga is not over. My wife, son, and I have tickets for Thursday night’s premiere of Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, one more Leonore to get to know and add to the comparison.