EDINBURGH FESTIVAL / Revelations and hot air: Raymond Monelle on two operatic rarities

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There are plenty of white middle-class males who speak enthusiastically of the 'high moral tone' of Beethoven's Fidelio, given a new staging by Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh Festival this week. This is presumably because it defines a good woman as one who sacrifices her all for a man.

Women find this message rather harder to swallow. They point out that Marcellina is abandoned by the plot and left without a partner. It is all a terrible shame, as this is the only opera in the repertoire to deal with marriage; all the others are about adultery.

One of the features of this year's festival was a whole day devoted to the background of Fidelio, with a lecture by H Robbins Landon and a complete performance of Leonora, the original version. While women listeners are unlikely to buy the equally subservient message of this much longer opera, many of the unsatisfactory aspects of Fidelio are explained when one hears Leonora. If you cannot assent to its vision of marriage, you can at least see the point - and, incidentally, understand what Marcellina is doing in the story.

For example, Leonora's great hymn to married love, 'Komm, Hoffnung', is preceded in the earlier work by a duet for Leonora and Marcellina - a beautiful little idyll with violin and cello solos, in which the girl expresses her adolescent yearnings for Leonora, whom she believes to be a man. Suddenly you realise that Beethoven means to picture the two ages of woman: the girl and the wife.

Leonora is full of such revelations. It pictures Leonora as more attractive, Rocco as wiser, Jacquino as less idiotic; and it begins with the grim, intellectual overture we call Leonora No 2. Even without the dialogue, it lasts over three hours; it would seem very long in the theatre. No matter; it's time we had a stage production.

This concert performance in the Usher Hall, under Charles Mackerras, was a little too careful. Rebecca Evans made a delightful, colourful Marcellina, but Janice Watson as Leonora lacked the breadth and intensity for her difficult part. Franz Hawlata was a sage, judicious Rocco, William Kendall a warm-hearted Florestan, Donald Maxwell a somewhat heavy-booted Pizarro. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra sounded lukewarm.

Festivals are times to learn about lost works of this kind. Another famous unknown, Emmanuel Chabrier's Briseis - the opera that was to be his life's work but which he never finished - was given its first performance in Britain by Jean Yves Ossonce with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and a starry group of soloists. They did a very convincing job, but you saw why Chabrier was never able to get beyond Act 1. Catulle Mendes' words are incurably flowery, and the composer, I regret to say, was just too talented for his own good. Unlike the composer of Leonora, he was totally intuitive; he could grasp beautiful melodies and gorgeous timbres out of the air almost without thinking. The result is an enormously seductive but ultimately flatulent and unmotivated score, virtually impossible to stage; only its backward looks at Wagner and foreshadowings of Debussy made it worth hearing.

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