Classical: From the basses to the stars

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The Independent Culture



IT WAS not until late in Act One, when Anne Evans launched into Leonora's great outburst "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?" that Walter Weller's reading of Fidelio with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by Jacqueline Hartley, began to warm the cockles.

Weller, a regular visitor to the CBSO and a former leader of the Vienna Philharmonic, tends to lead more than accompany, and occasionally overawes. Certainly there was a curious stiffness to the CBSO's playing initially, as if they were earnestly knuckling under to orders rather than listening intensely to each other. Yet at those scattered moments when Beethoven's music acquired its own unstultified flow, the strings came gloriously into their own.

Gravitas, underlined by deliberate, carefully bowed legato and an aching slow tempo for the opening quartet, seemed the keynote of Weller's approach. In its casting, the CBSO certainly came up trumps: not just Evans, a dramatic and powerfully full-blooded (if not quite so lyrical) Leonora, but a superb trio of basses, Stafford Dean, Matthew Best and Clive Bayley, to play the noble-minded jailer, Rocco, the scheming Don Pizarro and Don Fernando (who arrives, prefaced by the famous searing trumpet call, as the opera's deus ex machina).

Whereas the opening family tiff between Marzelline (Lynda Russell, a mite too wide-vibratoed) and her hapless fiance, Jaquino (Barry Banks), was overwhelmed by the orchestral balances, Best's voice, even at its mellowest, sears through even the thickest textures like a trombone, sending a delicious shiver down the spine. It is his vowels that define his magnificent tone and enables sound to penetrate so impressively (and occasionally words too: fortunate, given the provisional demise of the CBSO's surtitles).

It was Stafford Dean's convincing Rocco, however, which brought a poignancy to the first half. A veteran of both London opera companies, and more recently a stalwart of Scottish Opera (Dvorak's The Jacobin, James MacMillan's Ines de Castro, and Delius's The Magic Fountain later this spring), Dean seems to have regained all his old power and assurance; the all-bass trio, too, was a revelation. Ian Caley's Florestan, although notably breathless and oddly unsteady, was dignified by a warmth of delivery and poignancy of timbre that curiously made amends. The final rejoicing with Leonora ("namenlose Freude"), skilfully executed by Weller, was delightful, as was the exquisite last scene interplay between Marzelline and Leonora (better balanced than in Act One).

If the CBSO men's chorus disappointed in the outer sections of the prisoners' chorus (only three out of 49 had heads not glued to copies), it melted in the central passage ("O Himmel!"), in hushed response to two gorgeously delivered male chorus solos. A high point of the evening, certainly - as was the playing throughout of the CBSO's principal oboist, Jonathan Kelly, who lent charm to Florestan's aria and (with splendid paired horns) to the vital closing ensembles.

The performance is repeated this Thursday at 7.30pm