Beethoven – Fidelio

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Monday June 26 2006

Concert version. Conductor: Myung-Whun Chung. Leonora: Karita Mattila. Florestan: Ben Heppner. Rocco: Matti Salminen. Don Pizarro: Juha Uusitalo. Marzellina: Henriette Bonde-Hansen. Jaquino: Pavol Breslik. Don Fernando: François Lis. Chorus and Orchestre Philharmonique of Radio France.

One of the constant joys of concert-going is of course the chance to hear the ever-intelligent comments of neighbours during the evening. For Fidelio, in concert at the Châtelet, this week, the two old ladies behind me were on mid-season form: "Is it the National or the Philharmonique tonight?" "The National." (It was of course the Philharmonique.) And, as the chorus filed on to the stage: "Ce sont des amateurs, mais des amateurs éclairés" (“They’re amateurs, but enlightened amateurs”). The chorus of Radio France is one of the few full-time professional choruses in the country, and the Rolls-Royce of French choirs.

So, nothing unusual in the audience, but certainly something exceptional about the performers. This was the first time I've ever heard a cast in Fidelio good enough to obscure the undoubted oddities of the opera and make it work. They were, I mean, good enough (a) to make Beethoven's dotty vocal writing sound perfectly singable and (b) good enough to take the story to the exalted level the composer sincerely intended.

Mattila was on fairly good form. As many of you will know by now, I prefer commitment and risk-taking to a mere beautiful voice, and for those, Mattila gets full marks, even in an unstaged performance. By the end, all those frenzied, repeated top notes Beethoven insists on against the choral racket were pretty hard and hooty, but she sang with thrilling vehemence. (Her outfit was typical Mattila: a slinky, sleeveless, one-piece black flared trouser suit with plunging neckline and the back open as far as the crack in her bottom. Nothing else except dazzling, broad diamond bracelets.) The big act one aria brought the house down (she was of course still fresh, so the hardness and hootiness hadn't yet developed).

Heppner's voice has, to my ear, developed body. It used to be rather a thin, “buzzing” sound live. He may have lost a touch of control over intonation, but still has that fabulous breathing for long phrasing, and as I said above, he and Mattila both made the mad writing sound right. His opening aria in particular was a show-stopper: my goodness, the shock and chill of that “Got!” after the mysterious introduction… What a pleasant change to hear this killing part actually sung, not just yapped at…

Salminen was the great pro we expect, with perfectly-judged acting: just enough character, nothing hammy or OTT. To my ear, he sang with great elegance and avuncular warmth.

Henrietta Bonde-Hansen has a beautiful voice, lots of colour and well-judged phrasing and shaping. When I discussed her with a friend at the interval, it turned out that while I'd thought of Vienna in the 50s and 60s (that tight vibrato they used to have, plus the intelligence), even thinking of Hilde Güden, he'd thought it was a lovely "old-fashioned" voice. So we were in agreement. Talking of Güden, I see Bonde-Hansen is scheduled to sing Daphne at the Opéra National du Rhin. That's intriguing - I'd have thought she'd be mainly a Mozartian, but certainly she's a vocal beauty...

Pavol Breslik is, I believe, getting some attention these days. He may be one to watch in Mozart: not a huge tenor voice, but elegant and with some projection, not just wimpish bleating. He's a good-looking lad too. The weak link was Juha Uusitalo, rather a cardboard cut-out villain, a big but uninteresting, in-your-face voice.

The Radio France chorus was, as usual, a great luxury. The orchestre philharmonique, on the other hand, was just about OK: not especially radiant in any way, a few fluffed horn notes just when we didn’t need them in Komm Hoffnung… but in any case under Chung no particular subtlety is required. He never seems to call for a real pianissimo. For example, no spell was cast in the prelude to the prisoners' chorus - just was well, as it would have been broken by a phone going off in the front rows, eliciting an angry "tut" and look from Salminen, the nearest singer to the culprit.

In an avalanche of applause and cheering and bouquets there were (in addition to the inevitable two bravo-specialists ready to scream out at any moment) two lone booers. Presumably these are people used to a much better cast than Mattila, Heppner and Salminen. They weren't booing Chung or the orchestra, since they booed when the conductor was still off-stage.

Lots of non-paying customers, though, unusually, not Madame Pompidou. Pierre Bergé was there with Juliette Gréco. Yes, she’s still alive…!

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