Wiener Staatsoper 2019-20 Review: Fidelio Urfassung – Leonore

Jennifer Davis, Chen Reiss, Benjamin Bruns Lead Terrific Performance of Beethoven’s Masterwork in its Original Form

By Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Photo Credit: Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio” is usually characterized as an operatic work of extraordinary musical and dramatic values. Well-known for its mammoth Overture to Leonore No. 3, and originally entitled “Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love,” it carries a powerful message of a brave woman who risks her own life in order to save the life of her beloved husband.

Alas, Beethoven’s operatic jewel comes in three distinct flavors, and only one of them retained its steady stage presence up to these days: the third version, that had premiered in 1814 at the Court Opera at the Kärntnertor Theatre.

This latest version of “Fidelio” has been performed from day one at the Wiener Staatsoper as well. However, the opera house on the Ring stepped away from its own tradition and decided to honor the memory of the great composer in his 250th anniversary year by staging the very first version of “Fidelio.” This version was performed for the first time in 1805 at the Theater an der Wien, and it offers very substantial insights into the development of “Fidelio.”

Only by thorough musical comparison of all three versions, it could be seen that Beethoven made important and crucial changes relative to the first version in order to arrive at the final one. The overture that had been played at the premiere in 1805 is the one that is known at present as the Overture to Leonore No. 2. It was characterized back then as too diffuse, and too difficult for the wind-instruments, and Beethoven therefore replaced it with the so-called Overture to Leonore No. 3, which was played at the revival of the work in 1806, also at the Theater an der Wien. The original 1805 libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner was reworked and additionally modified by Georg Friedrich Treitschke for the 1814 performance.

However, this initial overture has magnificent musical values. The Wiener Staatsoper orchestra, under the musical guidance of Maestro Tomáš Netopil, provided exquisite insights into the richness and profound meanings of this overture, leading to a sublime performance. No strain was observed from the pit in any form; quite the contrary, the wind instruments were in the excellent shape, as well as the brass and the strings.

In terms of the score, the Second Act of the first version begins with Don Pizarro’s performance, while the Third Act corresponds to the Second Act of the final, third version. The Second Act of the 1805 version also has a lovely duet with Leonore and Marzelline.

Split In 2

A few minutes after the ouverture began, the curtain rose to showcase a modernly equipped room, with one marital bed and a big chair (presumably a hotel room). A couple entered the room, both obviously madly in love, and began to show their mutual affections with the music in the background. They were playful, full of joy and love for each other. Tenor Benjamin Bruns, in the role of Don Florestan, and dancer Katrin Röver, in the role of Leonore the Dancer, thus kicked off the production by Amélie Niermeyer. Niermeyer decided to shift the action to the modern days of the 21st century, and tell the story of the world as it is now. There is little doubt that the same motives that led Beethoven to compose the opera 215 years ago still exist, maybe even to the greater degree: politically oppressed people, endangered freedom of speech, and political prisoners.

Then something strange started to happen. They heard something outside of the room; anxiety started to appear, piercing their joyful mood. Bruns exited the room, while Röver remained in there. She began to realize that her beloved husband Don Florestan was taken away by force. She exited the room as well, only to find one bloody shirt, the same one that Don Florestan worn just a few moments ago.

That bloody shirt marked the transition that set up the dire times of the opera. Lights in the room went off the as the overture continued unimpeded. Once they got back on again, we saw two ladies in the room – Leonore the Dancer was joined by Leonore the Singer, personified by soprano Jennifer Davis; both were equally important for the future progress of the opera. It is quite possible that Niermeyer here tried to experiment with the psychological repercussions of the initial event – like a posttraumatic stress syndrome that had led to the character’s internal separation.

Davis and Röver looked at each other with the utter shock and despair – as they both realized the horror in them and around them: two Leonores would have to face the baptism of fire. The curtain fell again as the final sounds of the Ouverture to Leonore No. 2 were heard from the pit.

After the Ouverture to Leonore No. 2 had ended, the curtain rose to reveal the staging that would be present throughout the opera – a large prison.

However, it looked much more like a huge entry hall in an abandoned large station, sending unpleasant, harassing, yet powerful messages of mass exoduses, political horrors, and even concentration camps. During the course of the history there have been numerous occasions where regular prisons were too small, or even insufficient to imprison everyone needed. In this way Niermeyer decided to send a much broader message into the ether, a historical perspective of political oppression and political prisoners. Don Florestan was certainly a political prisoner, which could be readily seen from the libretto.

The production has some elements that could easily leave sensitive audiences at unease, especially the initial splitting of the personality of Leonore and her death at the end. Also, the final chorus had an interesting choice of costumes. However, only by thorough dissection of the production some conclusions could be made, but even then a singular answer could be impossible to reach. Niermeyer provided few clues and hints about her ultimate intentions with this kind of staging, and it is only up to the spectator to draw the conclusions. Yet, those conclusions could still be prone to personal perceptions and visual subjectivity. It is one of those cases where loose ends barely meet, but with a good reason.

Sharing the Spotlight

Irish soprano Jennifer Davis portrayed the role of Leonore and was up to the task in every way, both vocally and dramatically. In order to get to her imprisoned husband (who has been dubbed “the greatest enemy of the state”) she had to dress up and behave like a male. Davis successfully managed to avoid excessive mannerism, with her voice offering a consistent, yet slightly masculine note. Unlike her dancing alter ego – also successfully played by Katrin Röver – Davis showed her strength and determination in freeing her husband.

Davis engaged in extensive spoken dialogues with Röver, who expressed much more pessimism and overwhelming doubts. In that way audiences had the opportunity to see and hear the complete personality of Leonore, not just a heroic one, but also the one that doubts and fears about the ultimate outcome. But her strength always came through. When challenged by her dancing alter ego to approach Rocco and ask him to bring the food to her imprisoned husband, she started with pure empathy for Rocco’s weariness over his prison duties.

Davis vocally engaged for the first time during the Quartett “Mir ist so wunderbar,” offering the first insight into her bright, shining soprano in “Wie groß ist die Gefahr, wie schwach der Hoffnung Schein.”

She continued with the same vocal dedication during the beautiful trio “Gut, Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut, dann wird dir’s auch gelingen,” again towering over the orchestra with the beautifully phrased “Ich habe Mut, mit kaltem Blut will ich hinab mich wagen,” which continues with the cheerful resolution “Ja, ich werde glücklich sein.”

Her first solo recitative came in the Second act and showcased Davis’ first real doubts about finding her beloved husband. During “Ach, brich noch nicht, du mattes Herz,” she fell to her knees as she called for only one thing – hope: “Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern der Müden nicht erbleichen!” She sounded defeated, but then quickly rose back to her feet again, after those moments of a clear and pronounced weakness. Davis’ bright, gleaming soprano then offered some real enjoyment for the audiences.

Ending the aria, Davis presented her gleaming top range in the final “Der Treuen Gattenliebe.” Her sound then easily traveled over the orchestration, showcasing her true vocal powers.

The end of the second act brought that eagerly awaited hope for Leonore, dispatched via the recitative and duet “Noch heute! Noch heute! O welch ein Glück! O welche Wonne!” Here she realized that she would have the opportunity to go to the dungeons and see her beloved Don Florestan. And it was during this section that her vocalism flourished further.

Davis showcased more of that impassioned energy in the Third Act (which would correspond to the Second Act of the 1814 version). This was first seen  in the duet “Wie kalt ist es in diesem Gewölbe,” and then in the trio “Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten.” Davis showed tremendously fluid legato line without overly darkening her voice.

Unfortunately, Leonore’s final act is not to run off in triumphant bliss with her husband, but to die in his arms by saving him from Don Pizzaro’s knife. Then, in some otherworldly dimension she sees Governor Don Fernando arriving, and setting all the prisoners free. The two Leonore’s were thus reunited in death.



The Sound of Young Love

Israeli soprano Chen Reiss had the task of singing the opera’s first lines and she proved absolutely dominant in the role of Marzelline.

The 1805 version of “Fidelio” begins with the Marzelline’s aria “O wär ich schon mit dir vereint, und dürfte Mann dich nennen!” As she caressed the aria, Reiss showcased an absolutely perfect diction and superb phrasing, while at the same time accentuating the sweetness of a young love. The aria is packed with the fantastic vocal lines, and Reiss’ voice gleamed, erupting with bright sound as she expressed her overwhelming exaltation.

Finally, her singing exploded like a supernova with a sublime top note on the final “Lust.” If opera needed an opening winner, it got it in Reiss’ performance.

She offered some superb vocalism in subsequent duet with Jaquino, “Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein.” While she looked menacing and frightened all the same while holding scissors, she managed to explore a warmth that explored her love for Fidelio, particularly as she sang “Recht schön, du bestimmst schon die Zeit.”

After Don Pizzaro’s initial appearance in the Second Act, a duet with Marzelline and Leonore followed (“Um in der Ehe froh zu leben”), the one part that Beethoven cut out of his final, third version. Marzelline entered the stage wearing a wedding dress, clearly stating her intentions – she wanted to get married to the disguised Leonore. Both sweetness and determination took over the Reiss’ singing in those moments.

Ultimately, Chen Reiss was an unforgettable Marzelline.

Rising from the Bottom

The role of Don Florestan ultimately requires a really powerful tenor in order to truly deliver the true intentions of Beethoven’s music. For that reason, usually heldentenors get the role, but Benjamin Bruns, who took on the role on this evening, proved completely up to the task. He is a lyrical tenor, but with significant vocal strength and able to showcase much steel in his voice.

In his initial entrance, whereupon he was dragged by prison guards,  Bruns trembled in pain from damaged eyesight, lamenting the opening lines of his iconic “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! O grauenvolle Stille!”  Bruns started slowly, then picked up the tempo on “O schwere Prüfung” while still struggling to get on his feet. While singing “Ach! Es waren schöne Tage,” Bruns expressed the torment of his dire situation, and he again collapsed at the end of the aria.

During the trio “Euch werde Lohn in bessern,” Bruns regained vocal and physical potency, matching both Davis, Falk Struckmann, and the ever-present orchestra line for line.

Greater resiliency and firmness was present during the quartet “ Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen,” particularly on the line ” Ein Mörder steht von mir,” which was full of defiance.

After the death of Leonore, Don Florestan returned to the stage for the duet “O namenlose Freude,” which here has a totally different meaning than in a routinely performed staging of the third version of “Fidelio” at the Wiener Staatsoper. Leonore is triumphant in a different way, likely in an otherworldly dimension. By saving her husband, her mission has been fulfilled.

Benjamin Bruns offered one genuine and fresh portrayal of Don Florestan, ultimately succeeding in presentations of both the character’s frailty and  subsequent triumph.

Turning Soft

The role of Rocco was performed by bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, who has taken on the role at the Metropolitan Opera House and Staatsoper Hamburg.

The role of Rocco is not easy by any means. Initially, he is just a prison guard, thus a person who refuses to be human. He is not intrinsically evil, but merely finds himself in a set of circumstances that shape the role of Rocco. Rocco is also a loving father – and there was a constant reminder for him throughout the course of the opera about his most important duty.

Struckmann managed to maintain a good balance between the two really demanding sides of his character. His deep and powerful bass-baritone resonated on his opening lines “Ein Mann ist bald genommen” and during his first aria “Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben, kann man nicht ganz glücklich sein.” His delivery of the vocal line was graceful from the beginning until the very end, providing a gentler color in his subsequent trio with Leonore and Marzelline.

It was only in his encounter with Don Pizzaro that his sound turned more rigid, especially when he was faced with demands to kill Don Florestan. You could sense the unease as he dug the grave for the prisoner, his vocal color resonating with greater clarity. It was the first sense of his conscience taking hold.



From the Depths

Baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer portrayed the role of an immensely cruel chief of prison, and a main enemy of Don Florestan. His initial appearance was also reminiscent of a some local mafia boss in a red-colored suit.

Mayer’s deep baritone was firm and harsh, easily overpowering the thick orchestration in his aria “Ha, welch ein Augenblick! Die Rache werd’ ich kühlen, dich rufet dein Geschick!”

He also excelled in his duet with Rocco, “Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile,” the first fractures in the relationship between the two men coming to the surface.

Tenor Jörg Schneider imbued the role of Jaquino with the right dose of humor. His advances were all rejected by Marzelline, and in their duet, his voice clearly resonated both hope and disappointment.

German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn portrayed the short role of Don Fernando. His voice was persuasive and commanding on “Ja, doch um die Tugend nur zu rächen,” where he promised Don Florestan that he was coming only to break his chains and set him free.

One of the most renowned moments of the opera – even in the first version from 1805 – is the famed Chorus “O welche Lust im freier Luft,” where prisoners from the dungeons experience a short period of freedom. They have finally been able to breathe some fresh air. It begins very slowly, only to morph into a much more pronounced call for freedom.

There is little doubt that the Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra is capable of going at great lengths in order to provide the best possible support for the singers, as well as the musical basis for the opera.

And that well known fact was proven again for this presentation of “Fidelio.” Maestro Tomáš Netopil showed exquisite personal interest for the original Beethoven’s score, and his interpretation of it led to a sublime performance.

Ultimately, this was a truly successful and mesmerizing stating of Beethoven’s only operatic masterwork  in its original version, with admirable singing and sound from the pit, in a rather interesting and a thought-provoking production.


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