« Robert Ward's 'The Crucible' gets vivid staging by Peabody Opera | Main | Satisfying sonic Sunday: BSO with Belohlavek, Richard Goode at Shriver Hall »

March 19, 2012

Eschenbach, National Symphony present gripping 'Fidelio' in concert

Beethoven's link to the what, in some quarters, would be called liberal causes -- liberty from tyrannical states, the brotherhood of man, the power of love and justice -- may have been a bit exaggerated over time.

But this is how many people want to imagine the composer, and why he is embraced so heartily.

When Leonard Bernstein changed a beloved text from "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom" in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth to mark the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, it seemed safe to assume that the composer would have approved.

After all, Beethoven had already revealed a firm commitment to freedom and the overthrow of evil forces in his single opera, "Fidelio."

That commitment registered anew in a gripping concert version of the opera offered by the National Symphony Orchestra, led by its music director Christoph Eschenbach.

When the prisoners in Act 1 make their tentative steps out of their cells for a rare sight of sunlight; when Florestan, unjustly held in the jail, sings of his despair at the start of the second act; when a benevolent ruler arrives in the nick of time -- it is impossible to miss Beethoven's sympathies in such passages.

And when, at the end, everyone offers an ecstatic salute to the loyalty and bravery of Leonore, the good wife who risked her life to save her husband, Beethoven isn't just reinforcing the value of a strong marriage. He celebrates the greatness of the noble, selfless individual fighting against ruthless, immoral and amoral authorities.

Well, that's how I like to think of it, at least. And that's how I heard it Saturday night in the NSO's memorable performance at the Kennedy Center.

This was very much ...

a theatrical "Fidelio." Presented in an effectively semi-staged format, the action moved rapidly and absorbingly as directed by Stephen Pickover (only some hand-pointing and flag-waving actions assigned to the chorus struck me as unwise). The cast got well into the piece, so that it was easy to conjure vivid imagery to go with each scene.

I wish Melanie Diener had landed more squarely on pitch all the time, but her portrayal of Leonore rang true. At her best, the soprano produced a lush, dark sound and sculpted the demanding music with considerable expressive fire.

Simon O'Neill delivered Florestan's equally demanding music with an affecting passion, not to mention laser-like articulation and a bright, theater-filling tone. (This was the voice we didn't get to hear last year, when O'Neill sang Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" with the Baltimore Symphony hours after being hospitalized .)

With his plush voice and appreciation for every syllable of text, Eric Halfvarson did stylish, sterling work as Rocco, the common man with an uncommon conscience. Tomasz Konieczny thundered effectively as the nasty Don Pizzaro. Kyle Ketelsen brought a rich bass-baritone and a compelling delivery to the role of the enlightened Don Fernando.

As Marzelline, sweet-voiced Jegyung Yang did not always project easily, but her colorful characterization did. Paul Appleby performed the small role of Jaquino vibrantly. And Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society of Washington was in superb form. The men produced a beautifully blended tone for the prisoner scene; the full chorus helped to shake the rafters splendidly in the finale.

The NSO delivered very impressive playing, right from the overture. There was discipline in the attack, warmth in the tone, expressive depth in the phrasing. The horns had a particularly beneficial night.

The main star of the evening -- besides Beethoven, of course -- was Eschenbach. His inspired and inspiring guidance drew fresh details from the score, emphasizing, for example, the subterranean orchestral colors during the dungeon scene, and ensuring that each of Beethoven's edgiest chords really shattered the place before resolving.

Eschenbach also fashioned a marvelously moody, seamless transition from the rescue scene to the "Leonore" Overture No. 3. In that overture (often interpolated as scene-change filler in opera house productions), the conductor's interest in dynamic contrasts, rhythmic tautness and, in the closing moments, sheer, unbridled joy paid off handsomely.

He unleashed that same mood in the opera's last scene, driving everyone onstage to a peak of contagious exhilaration. The whole performance provided a memorable journey on the road to joy.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:25 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO


The text for Beethoven's Ninth is Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (Freude) which Schiller had originally written as "Ode to Freedom" (Freiheit). He changed it before publication because there was political unrest at the time and Schiller, who had already come to the attention of the nobles' police network, was persuaded that an ode to "Freedom" would be dangerous to him.

Bernstein was certainly aware of this historic note.

Indeed Bernstein was aware, but as he wrote at the time of the Berlin concert: 'Most scholars now say that this was probably no more than a hoax perpetuated by a 19th-century political figure named Friedrich Ludwig Jahn.' Whatever the truth may be, the change for that particular concert was surely justified. TIM

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected