Melanie Eskenazi is uplifted by this wonderful concert staging in the most trying of times.
This month is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and he is nobly served by this austere, finely played and sympathetically sung version of his only opera. The recent-ish Royal Opera production left a bad taste with many, and Opera North’s concert staging is just what’s needed to erase the memory of those irritating supernumeraries, insultingly interposed dialogue and frankly shameful scenes such as Leonora’s ‘unwrapping.’
Leeds Town Hall is one of the most ornate public buildings in the land, resembling a kind of inside out wedding cake, but for this staging the pink and gold gave way to sombre black, brilliantly lit by Mike Lock and artfully staged by Matthew Eberhardt. The inherent solemnity of the work makes it ideal for this kind of presentation, and Peter Maniura’s direction made sensitive use of the limitations of livestream presentation.
Pared-down does not have to mean sparse, and here the playing and singing were of such richness and depth that we did not miss the appurtenances of a full production. Mark Wigglesworth does not make a big show of conducting this music, but he teases out every nuance of the score, allowing us to relish its tenderness as well as its fiery drama. The mesmerizingly slow pace of the introduction to the Act I quartet had us holding our breath for Marzelline’s first line, and the fervent excitement in the build up to ‘O namenlose Freude’ made the most of Beethoven’s glorious phrases.
“…Beethoven… is nobly served by this austere, finely played and sympathetically sung version of his only opera”
Every singer performed with blazing commitment; they were framed by Matthew Stiff’s deeply serious narration (David Pountney) and acted with such ardour that no one could miss a formal staging. Fflur Wyn’s sweetly phrased Marzelline and Oliver Johnston’s eloquently frustrated Jacquino made a very fine pair, and Brindley Sherratt brought his characteristic blend of avuncular demeanour and powerfully committed singing to the role of Rocco. Robert Hayward could not be bettered as Pizarro – it was remarkable that this study in malevolence was created by the same singer as such a genial Falstaff.
Rachel Nicholls and Toby Spence have quite different kinds of voices; hers is of Wagnerian power and heroic quality, almost in the mode of a Rita Hunter, whereas his lies most eloquently in the area provided by Mozart. Both were at the top of their game here, with singing of passionate ardour in their great arias and tenderly nuanced phrasing throughout.
Matthew Stiff rose to the challenge of Don Fernando’s ‘Euch, edle Frau allein…’ and the individually distanced chorus sang with powerful strength and rich tone, despite their small numbers. Oliver Rundell ensured that their Prisoners were as poetically anguished as their wives were exultant, and Stuart Laing and James Davies provided eloquent cameos as First and Second Prisoner respectively.
There must have been thousands of standing ovations in living rooms all over the place after this performance, and if you missed it, you can catch it until Saturday here.