Prom 50: Fidelio - West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Barenboim - Royal Albert Hall, 22 August 2009
This Prom was, predictably, packed out. So why did the BBC need once again to occupy precious space and block people's views with yet another podium-mounted camera positioned slap bang in the middle of the arena? They already had a battery of equipment stationed at the sides, not to mention a roaming cameraman right in front of the stage for those all important up-nostril shots. The Met, the Royal Opera House and the Berlin Philharmonic, to name just a few, manage to produce professional DVDs with far less gear, all unobtrusively positioned, and without disrupting a large chunk of the audience. But then they're dedicated to music, not to viewing figures.
Year by year the Proms inches further away from its origins as a live performance festival and further towards reincarnation as a BBC-branded TV special 'filmed in front of a live audience'. At least the evening Proms concerts haven’t yet sunk to the depths of the daytime ones, where the audience are instructed not just how and when to applaud, but how loudly to chat amongst themselves to generate the prescribed ‘atmosphere’.
But back to the music.
This concert performance was punctuated by a mostly pre-recorded English narration from Waltraud Meier as a disillusioned Leonore, some years later, a bitter and apposite reflection on the difficulty of living up to ideals. The choice of opening overture - the Leonore 3 - in itself a backward-looking summary of the opera - emphasised the point, a nostalgic evocation of a past forever lost.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra played incredibly well (and this is not an easy score), meeting all of Daniel Barenboim's detailed and demanding requirements, by turns dark, thrilling and joyfully defiant. Barenboim's pushing and pulling and tweaking around sometimes perplexes - but not here. It's as if he has a magic key to Beethoven's secrets. There was not one routine passage, yet everything sounded inexorably right.
The soloists were on this occasion simply outshone by the orchestra. John Tomlinson came out best as a convincing Rocco, an involuntary wobble here and there only adding to the impression of age and inconstancy.
Leonore, as I have previously observed, is not the greatest showcase for Waltraud Meier's vocal skills, lying in her least comfortable range and making unfulfillable demands on her agility. Her pitch was often wildly off but at least her earnest intensity was some compensation, and her dramatic presence is undeniable. She cut a chic figure in a white taffeta wrapover ensemble-thingy, and like her contemporary Renee Fleming, seems able to spin the wheel of time in reverse. A flattering new dark pixie haircut complemented her smooth-browed peachy complexion.
Simon O'Neill made a brilliant start with an arresting, needle sharp “Gott, welch Dunkel hier!”, but his big voice doesn't manoeuvre easily around Florestan's rapid lines. When things sped up, he trailed in the orchestra's wake, chasing the notes at the expense of the text.
Gerd Grochowski's Don Pizarro and Viktor Rud's Don Fernando were efficiently sung, but lacking in the necessary authority and presence. Adriana Kučerová's Marzelline and Stephen Rügamer's Jacquino were again efficient, but simply anonymous.
The best singing of the evening came from the back of the hall as the sterling BBC Singers and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir delivered the prisoners' chorus with an intensity and commitment that was often lacking at the front.