Classical Music: If at first you don't succeed

Beethoven only wrote one opera but he took three goes to get it right. Or did he? Michael Church investigates the case for Fidelio Mk I
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The Independent Culture
The orchestra are in place, the conductor's baton poised, when out of the audience lurches a tramp. "Wait!" he shouts. Quoting Wordsworth, he launches into a tirade about the downfall of tyrants, glorious dawns, and about an opera he wrote to celebrate these things. He describes its calamitous premiere, tortuous reworking, and re-emergence under a new name; he protests, however, that the first version still has his love. He grabs the hand of a lady violinist and kisses it. His plot, he explains, will tell of the unjustly imprisoned Florestan, and of his rescue by his wife Leonore disguised as a youth called Fidelio. He releases the violinist's hand, and points to the dramatis personae who have silently appeared on platforms round the stage. Let the tale be told, let Leonore begin!

The overture is familiar to anyone who knows Fidelio, but the tone is bracingly spare, with each wind-player drawing on an armoury of ancient instruments. The tramp hovers ubiquitously as the drama unfolds, part narrator, part MC. Sometimes he speaks in character as one of the protagonists, but most of the time he is a character we all know well. And he makes a good job of it: this really is Beethoven, with his alternate spasms of volcanic rage and oceanic generosity.

At times we might be watching Fidelio: most of its arias are intact, but moments of unfamiliar beauty - a march one has not heard before, a "new" duet for the heroine and her blindly adoring female paramour - remind us that we're watching something different. In this opera, restored and performed by John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, the characters develop more organically, the suspense grips tighter. In Fidelio, the incarcerated Florestan invokes God's aid with a long drawn-out shout. The effect is extraordinary, but also improbable: would a starved and tortured man really sing so lustily? Here he announces his presence with an aria whose Gallic plangency suits the situation far better. And whereas Fidelio's finale opens with a trite piece of choral rum-ti-tum delivered frontally at the stalls, this finale is intensely dramatic, opening with the menacing sound of the populace in the distance, and finally seeing them flood the stage like a revolutionary mob.

The show may be "semi-staged", but its theatrical impact is enormous, thanks partly to the score, partly also to the way Gardiner and his director, Annabel Arden, have choreographed events on stage. The singer-actors appear, disappear and reappear at all points of the compass, while the orchestra becomes the fulcrum round which everything turns. There are flaws - some obvious tricks are missed with the lighting and costumes - but the total effect is exhilarating: a forgotten work brought brilliantly back to life.

It's a huge success, and gets an ovation. Yet when I encounter Gardiner backstage, he's mute with rage. Things went wrong this evening, and he didn't get the effects he wanted. One singer's movements had been wildly at variance with the company style; two others had had the temerity to take solo bows ("This is an ensemble show!" he growls through clenched teeth). An exaggerated response? Not really, given the scope of this tour, and the stress it must engender.

This performance was in the South German town of Ludwigsburg: the show is going on to the Alice Tully Hall in New York, to the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg, and this coming Friday to the Proms. At each venue it must be directed anew: they will have precisely six hours in which to re-choreograph it all for the cavernous space - and weird acoustic - of the Albert Hall. Each performance, moreover, has a local narrator. For a travelling show, that's as high-risk as it comes.

But Gardiner seems to thrive on risk, and loves sticking his neck out. For the past three years he has noisily trumpeted Beethoven's debt to the composers of the French Revolution. With Leonore he is both championing a Cinderella work, and advancing a historical thesis. The dying Beethoven said of Fidelio that "of all my children, this was born in greatest travail". With three separate scores, and four different overtures, the process took him 12 years. The conventional view today is that Leonore is a fascinating but flawed first draft. Gardiner disagrees. "There's no question that Leonore has weaknesses, both musical and dramatic. But it has an integrity and a freshness which are irreplaceable.

"What I love about it is the sense it gives of a musical and emotional journey. It's about man's ability to better his lot through sheer moral force - it's a reflection of Beethoven's own private struggle. Fidelio seems all worked out at the start, with the characters like cardboard cut-outs: it serves a quite different political message, something tub- thumping and jingoistic. It doesn't surprise me at all that it was hijacked first by German nationalists, then by Wagner, and finally by Hitler."

But Gardiner has not simply replaced one score with another: he's cut and spliced the 1805, 1806 and 1814 versions - in a way that will enrage purists - to create what he imagines Beethoven himself might have done, were he to re-stage his opera now. He's also cut most of the spoken dialogue, and replaced it with a linking narration - a decision inspired by the Stravinsky-Cocteau Oedipus Rex.

I had no difficulty in accepting Christoph Bantzer's Beethoven in Ludwigsburg - maybe because the Beethoven in my head has always spoken in wild Teutonic hyperbole. London's Ludwig will be Daniel Massey, fresh from his dramatic reincarnation as Wilhelm Furtwangler. Can he pull it off? Playing the composer himself is a far taller order than impersonating one of his mere interpreters. The field is littered with failures (Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved for one). Peter Ustinov, however, starring in his own Beethoven's Tenth, has shown that the job can be done in English, with no loss of that vital, sulphurous whiff. Prom No 36 - with Gardiner's performers occupying the arena, while the Prommers sit on stage - should be an interesting event.

n `Leonore': Fri 16 Aug, 7pm Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7. Booking: 0171-589 8212