Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Classics: Beethoven's superhero couple -- The Florestans have for sure done their duty


Simon O'Neill as Florestan in the opening scene
of Act II of Fidelio in Houston, October 2011

OUR STORY SO FAR (from Friday night's preview)
Orchestral introduction

A dark underground dungeon. FLORESTAN is sitting on a stone. Around his body he has a long chain, whose end is fastened to the wall.

FLORESTAN: God! What darkness here!
O dreadful silence!

Hans Hopf (t), Florestan; RAI Rome Symphony Orchestra, Eugen Jochum, cond. Broadcast performance, Dec. 22, 1957

Josef Protschka (t), Florestan; Vienna Philharmonic, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded 1990

"Send as soon as possible to Seville. Ask for Leonore Florestan, and tell her that I'm lying here in chains."
-- the imprisoned Don Florestan, to the jailer Rocco, in Act II of Fidelio

by Ken

Unbeknownst to Florestan, Leonore not only isn't in Seville but is in fact in his dungeon at this very moment, in her disguise as a boy, Fidelio, serving as assistant to the prison's head jailer, Rocco. In fact, tramping around Spain is what Leonore has been doing since her husband disappeared without trace. It has taken all her powers of persuasion with Rocco, who sees the adept young Fidelio as a potentially excellent match for his daughter Marzelline, to get him to allow her to accompany him down to the most secret location in the prison. The degree of secrecy surrounding the prisoner in question has once again raised Leonore's hopes that the poor soul is in fact her missing husband.

Whether or not you were able to access the audio files in Friday night's preview, this is where we were headed: the opening scene of Act II of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. It's our first encounter with the (barely) real live Don Florestan. And it turns out that excruciating as Leonore's ordeal has been, between the two of them she's had the easy time.

What we heard Friday night was:

(1) the long orchestral introduction to this opening scene of Act II, one of the most remarkable stretches of music that Beethoven or anybody else ever wrote; and

(2) the bit of the Leonore Overture No. 3 that's taken from the portion of Florestan's monologue that recalls his long-fled days of good fortune. (It's also used in the overture we know as Leonore No. 2. (We should note that at different times the opera was known as both Leonore and Fidelio. Many commentators will tell you confidently which title Beethoven strongly preferred. They just don't happen to agree which it was. It seems to me that a case could be made for either.)

I always thought, in all the years I've been contemplating a post like this one, that when I got to it, I would break the monologue down line by line, phrase by phrase, really homing in on the way thoughts crowd in on the near-comatose Florestan, the kinds of emphases we can hear in Beethoven's setting, the musical and verbal repetitions as well as the occasional false starts. Well, that's not going to happen. The best I can do is encourage you to be aware of these issues as we work our way through

I also imagined I would have a selection of performances to illustrate each of the performance problems and opportunities, That's not going to happen either. Given the size of the three chunks into which I've divided the monologue, it's easier to find performances that make some points and falter with others than to find any that really nail a section. So I should say that inclusion among our selections doesn't necessarily constitute endorsement, although I think each of the performances we'll be hearing has something of value to contribute. I'll leave it to you to ponder which voices make which kinds of effects, and which performances have what kinds of impact.

The role of Florestan itself calls for a tenor voice of vast size and suppleness. I would be tempted to call it "one of a kind," except that it's more like "four of a kind," having significant overlap with Wagner's Siegmund (Die Walküre), Verdi's Otello, and one we were just pondering, Saint-Saëns' Samson.



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