The career of Charles Mackerras has been very special indeed. He has brought the operas of Janáček to wider attention; he is equally at home in Wagner music dramas and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; and his renditions of Classical-period music have helped to pioneer original performance practices, often casting new light on familiar repertoire.
The latter was a prominent feature of this concert performance of Beethoven’s mighty opera Fidelio, held to celebrate Mackerras’ 80th birthday next month. Mackerras was so sprightly that it was almost difficult to believe he is soon to be an octogenarian, and in some ways he showed up some of his considerably younger colleagues.
Any Mackerras performance is guaranteed to have a well-drilled orchestra however, and this was certainly the case here. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was in fabulous form from the start, and the interpolated Leonore Overture No. 3 between the two scenes of Act II received extended and deserved applause. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus and singers from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance were similarly pleasing, with spot-on German and seamless ensemble singing.
The evening took a while to get started though, with several of the soloists in an unusually tentative state. The American soprano Christine Brewer played Leonore, who dresses up as Fidelio to enter the state prison and free her lover, Florestan. Until her first aria, Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin, Brewer was surprisingly underpowered, but it was worth waiting for her brilliant execution of the latter and she was astounding thereafter.
Sadly, the beautiful quartet, Mir ist so wunderbar, was very disappointing earlier in the act, with all four singers unable to project above the enthusiastic orchestra. Peter Rose (Rocco the gaoler), Lisa Milne (Marzelline his daughter) and Timothy Robinson (Jaquino) were all efficient rather than outstanding in the opening stages, though all of them acted with character and sang prettily enough; they were all magnificent in the final scene.
The surprise of the evening, and the big spark which drove things into a higher gear, was Terje Stensvold, a Scandinavian baritone of whom we should hear more. He was a knock-out as the prisoner governor, Pizarro, and his exciting opening aria drew the first applause of the night.
The former ROH Young Artist Matthew Rose was outstanding as Don Fernando, one of the few wholly satisfying contributors. On the other end of the scale was the clearly ailing (though it was not announced) Thomas Moser, whose Florestan was abysmal. The big Act II aria is tricky enough at the best of times, but Moser was scarcely able to make a sound at all, let alone sing in tune, on this occasion.
Yet the reason for the evening was to honour Mackerras, and the standing ovation at the end proved that this had been achieved. Rarely has the second act finale been so viscerally played and sung, and despite one’s reservations, there was enough to make this a memorable performance.