The opening of La Scala’s season on 7 December each year is the most anticipated and often contested event in the international opera calendar.
Daniel Barenboim opens the 2014-2015 Opera and Ballet Season with Fidelio directed by Deborah Warner. It marks the end of his nine years at the Teatro alla Scala at its musical helm, even though Barenboim’s first concert at La Scala dates back to 1970. It started with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on 23 December 2005 and followed over the years by the complete Symphonies, piano concertos and sonatas and by concluding his experience as Music Director of the theatre with Fidelio, Maestro Barenboim completes a creative cycle that has given the theatre’s audience the opportunity to experience a body of work which remains fundamental to western culture.
It is meaningful that in the finale of Fidelio Schiller’s verses echo: “Whoever has found a beloved wife, let him join our songs of praise!” (“Wer ein holdes Weib errungen / Mische seinen Jubel ein!”) taken from the Ode to Joy that was set to music in the Ninth Symphony.
Barenboim has chosen that the new La Scala production will be, by and large, the final version of 1814 with the dialogue by Treitschke, but he has decided to use the Leonore No. 2 overture composed by Beethoven for the première of 1805 using themes from the opera. The following year it was transformed into the stunning Leonore No. 3
With Leonore No. 2, explains Barenboim, Beethoven surpassed the 18th Century tradition of overtures whose themes are not related to the opera (for instance Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte) and creates instead a real introduction that leads into the atmosphere of the drama.
It already contains the whole story, the opera recalls it and tells the details,
says Barenboim. Leonore No. 2, however, does not have the imposing dimensions of a symphonic movement that so much characterise Leonore No. 3. Barenboim recalls the words of Wilhelm Furtwängler:
If you do the No. 3, you do not need to do the rest of the opera.
The attention that Daniel Barenboim and Deborah Warner pay to the 1806 version (that Beethoven wanted to entitle “Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love”) mainly springs from the desire to expand the human and emotional aspect of the drama. Barenboim says,
The best-known operas of the German repertoire are subject to misinterpretation: Tristan und Isolde is often referred to as an opera about love while in reality it is an opera about death. Love is found in Wagner in the first act of Die Walküre. On the other hand, Fidelio is often interpreted solely as a political drama while it is, in fact, the story of a woman willing to do anything to save the man she loves.
Warner echoes his sentiments,
The main themes of Fidelio are a hunt for justice in the dark, a hunt for truth in the dark, the metaphoric dark of a prison, and the finding of injustice in the light of day. This frames the central theme of the opera which is the power of love to conquer all.
Apart from the grand overture, the instrumentation of Fidelio is more like Mozart. One of the problems of performing the opera lies in the fact that historically the role of Leonore was played by Wagnerian singers with a voice that was far too strong for the music. Deborah Warner has worked with particular intensity on the rapport between the sung and spoken parts: the dialogue is comical and dull if treated with superficiality; compassionate and touching if carried out with care.
The year 2014 marks the bicentenary of the third and final version of Fidelio and the opera fits perfectly into the “Milano Cuore d’Europa” programme promoted by the City of Milan: the intertwining of mankind, love and the pursuit of freedom conveyed by Beethoven is truly at the centre of the cultural and social heritage of our continent.
Fidelio at La Scala
Fidelio, virtually unknown in Nineteenth-century Italy (over the century there were only two performances, one in Bologna and other in Milan), is an opera that has frequently been performed at La Scala and is by tradition and by necessity the preserve of the greatest Maestros.
The début took place in 1927, the first centenary of Beethoven’s death, under the auspices of Arturo Toscanini and starring Francesco Merli and Elisabetta Ohms Pasetti. In 1939 Wilhelm Sieben conducted Iva Pacetti and Giovanni Voyer in a production by Mario Frigerio with set designs by Nicola Benois. The opera was performed for the last time in Italian ten years later under the baton of Jonel Perlea, sets and costumes by Felice Casorati and an extraordinary cast: Maria Rigal and Mirto Picchi are supported by Boris Christoff, Giuseppe Taddei and Hilde Güden.
In 1952, Herbert von Karajan was the conductor and director of the first production in German at La Scala, casting Martha Mödl and Wolfgang Windgassen in the leading roles; yet again Herbert von Karajan in 1960 relied on Paul Hager as director and Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers on stage. The opera was performed once again for the opening of the 1974/75 season; conducted by Karl Böhm, directed by Günther Rennert with Leonie Rysanek and James Kingin as leads.
In 1977, La Scala hosted the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Leonard Bernstein presenting a production by Otto Schenk with Gundula Janowitz and René Kollo as protagonists. After that, Fidelio was not performed at La Scala until Lorin Maazel conducted Jeanine Altmeier and Thomas Moser in the production by Giorgio Strehler in 1990. Once again, Thomas Moser took the leading role alongside Waltraud Meier nine years later at the opening of the season conducted by Riccardo Muti and directed by Werner Herzog. The last time the name Fidelio was billed at the opera house was in a production in concert form by the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, starring Nina Stemme and Peter Seiffert, on 9 September 2011.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.