Happy Birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven

December 16, 2011

In honor of the 242nd year since his birth, I herewith offer one of the greatest moments in Beethoven’s entire, varied output. It’s the quartet in Fidelio that gives us many things rare in opera. For one thing, we have four people in a non-comedy singing at once, all of whom are actually good — who are meant to endear themselves to us for various reasons. Here Beethoven does some things that are very difficult to do — and impossible for almost everyone else.

First, he has characters sing the same music while having contrasting thoughts. He does this by having the music that they share portray not their specific meditations but the moment itself. The latter is common to all of them; and, while there are subtleties in the orchestra and, later on, certain passing harmonic events that portray some incidental disunity of the sort that all human interaction is prone to, the music does something that was not possible by other means until the invention of cinema: we have a quadripartite split screen, as it were.

The second extremely difficult hurdle that he clears is that of having the performers switch from speaking to singing without seeming jarringly unrealistic. In fact, he makes being unrealistic the point (cf. split screen, above), and the almost mystical suspension of time is immediately effected by the orchestral introduction (with it harmony replete with suspensions of another sort — most effective when interpreters have the good sense to rein in the vibrato here, thus keeping the harmonies poignant). Even for those who don’t understand the German words, this transition can be powerful, as here at Glyndebourne:  

So intensely felt by performers, by us — but first by Beethoven!

And that feeling can survive very different specifics of interpretations: this very slow tempo that Bernstein takes perhaps “should not” work. There seems too much chance of losing the contrapuntal coherence that is so key to the whole. But the wonderful clarity of the performance more than compensates, and (as with the composition in the first place) what “shouldn’t” work did work marvelously well in this Vienna performance:
   

The idea, too prevalent lately and drilled into us by the most intense marketing, that music drama depends on Broadway-style direction and that the operatic past was all fat people singing with their hands outstretched, is evidently ignorant of performances like this one from Berlin in 1963. Instead of contradicting the music with ingenious but irrelevant directorial inventions, the singers might be said to act the drama by acting the music (which, as I’ve emphasized, Beethoven had already made entirely dramatic):

Heaven protect us from a director who would surround such a moment with busy action to “keep it interesting”!

And I add one other performance of the scene, this one from Switzerland, for its sheer gorgeousness:

Many of us were taught that Fidelio is a relative failure as an opera — before we ever had a chance to become familiar with its actual attributes. I pity people who can hear it in a fine performance and think so.

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