It is impossible to separate the West-East Divan Orchestra from what they represent, so the climax of their two-day presence at the Proms – a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio – was always going to carry a loaded political message.
A specially written narration by the orchestra’s co-founder, Edward Said, further sought to personalise the politics and uncover, as Beethoven desired, a more intimate humanity. The opera’s heroine, Leonore (Waltraud Meier), now spoke directly to us, her largely pre-recorded stream of consciousness filling the Albert Hall with at least one voice of reason.
Daniel Barenboim’s reason for choosing the 1806 version of the opera was immediately clear. The third of four overtures Beethoven wrote for Fidelio – Leonore No.3 – is the opera’s narrative in microcosm or “flashback” and undoubtedly lends more weight to Said’s opening address. Plus his young players went at it like determined souls possessed from inky blackness in deep saturations of bass-heavy string sound to a blinding defiance at the triumphant finish. It was clear that much of the drama would be in Barenboim’s orchestra.
But on stage were two great singing actors – Waltraud Meier (Leonore) and John Tomlinson (Rocco) – fortifying the dramatic context of the musical numbers where the absence of dialogue somewhat compromised it. Meier may now lack the heroic coloratura for the role but her words carry such import and the big moments – such as that where she finally reveals herself as Florestan’s wife – were fiercely, thrillingly, intense. Tomlinson’s earthy Rocco exuded an inherent goodness.
Oddly the two contrasting authority figures – the black-hearted Don Pizarro (Gerd Grochowski) and the benevolent Don Fernando (Viktor Rud) – were under-cast, neither conveying the requisite weight of power. And why was Adriana Kucerova’s Marzelline the only singer clutching a score and still betraying insecurity?
Astonishing secure in the most demandingly high tessitura was Simon O’Neill’s Florestan. His cry of “Gott, welch Dunkel hier!” (“Oh God! How dark it is!”) seemed capable of penetrating the furthermost wall of the Albert Hall and his delirious vision of Leonore borne aloft to the strains of a serenading solo oboe really hit the spot.
And so liberation duly arrived in rhythmically incisive singing from the BBC Singers and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and as Beethoven’s brave syncopations powered home, the hope was that some of this idealism and faith might, in reality, rub off.