Twenty-six years later (the last visit to this festival was in 1984): a new hall (Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern—relatively; opened in 1998), reinvigorated leadership (Hubert Achermann, president), visionary executive/artistic direction (Michael Haefliger) and a season opener that both celebrates the theme of “Eros” and demonstrates a welcome determination to take risks.
What remains the same, although perpetually different, are the legion of international artists who bring the music to life and the global colony of music lovers who savour, applaud, cheer and toss fresh flowers on those who provide so much pleasure. Without a doubt, there is a feeling of festival in the summer air.
Judging by the capacity crowd’s numerous ovations after both acts of Fidelio (this being the repeat of the August 12 launch), semi-staging Beethoven’s only opera was an unqualified success.
Yet, from these seasoned eyes, the musical greatness that lurks intriguingly in every measure (as well as the plot-driving/scene-setting dialogue) was frequently diluted in an evening that mostly looked like a studio recording session following a number of fully staged presentations. (Capturing live opera on film is also near-impossible as only the camera can choose what to show, the voices are a challenge to balance and more stage noise than an audience member could expect to hear inevitably works its way into the mix: our most expensive art form is still best experienced as originally intended.)
To take the Lucerne audience to an unforgiving prison near Seville, set designer Stefan Heyne covered the choir loft railings, remaining stage floor and the singers’ music stands with dozens of form-and-function serving great coats. (Reconfiguring the black-shirt prisoners to soldiers is readily accomplished by putting on the abundant, epaulet-accessorized garments.)
Silently watching over the entire proceedings is a huge white globe (spanning several balconies), magically able to fill itself with heavenly clouds then easily symbolic candle flame before a solitary blinking eye slips the mood just shy of near-farcical parody seconds before Florestan’s stunning second act entry. Two out of three, but Beethoven’s brooding, dramatic orchestral introduction was largely trumped by the overhead Cyclops.
What little other costuming there was consisted of the comrade-like tops and a long jacket to reinforce the evil Don Pizaro (even the King’s minister, Don Fernando is left in shirt sleeves).
Reinhard Traub’s lighting design is often at one with the score. The sudden banishment of Don Pizaro (following a pointed finger scolding from the now-in-the-loft chorus) is a deft bit of stagecraft that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cirque du Soleil show.
Director Tatjana Gürbaca has done a credible job of imagining then pulling all of these disparate components together—ever mindful of the music’s dominant position—but the few moments of theatrical and character imagery (just a couple of physical touches or telling looks amongst the cast) only whet the appetite for a lowered pit and full-length scrim to fulfill the dramatic potential. Despite artfully moving her charges from station to station, the “on book” performances can’t begin to match the marvellous ebb and flow emanating from the orchestra in front of them.
Claudio Abbado with the combined forces of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra produced an exceptionally lyrical reading that fully exploits the room’s wonderful reverb. The lower strings in particular (occasionally cutting back the four double basses by half displayed a much appreciated awareness of subtle balance) kept the music simultaneously lean, vibrant and moving ahead. Every fully formed, yet always flexible note uttered by principal oboists Mizuho Yoshii was a treasure; Martin Baeza’s pair of note-perfect offstage trumpet calls revealed his considerable talent and more of the hall’s acoustic depth.
Voice/orchestra ensemble did tend to wane as the opera progressed and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, while projecting well couldn’t always manage consonant uniformity. An earlier than expected resolution of a major cadence soon after intermission was not allowed an encore when it recurred (Abbado went right to the source—nothing gets past him twice).
Vocally, the overall quality was good. Standouts included Rachel Harnisch’s beautifully crafted Marzelline, Christof Fischesser’s full-bodied, nuanced Rocco and Falk Struckmann’s devilishly delightful Don Pizarro. Beginning the famous “Gott!” pianissimo then letting it soar into its intended feeling of utter despair, Jonas Kaufmann began the role of Florestan with much promise. His fine, focussed dark-mahogany tone, at times, echoed that special hue of Jon Vickers (cross-reference below) only to lose consistency as the demanding part moved on. Soprano Nina Stemme certainly has the range and variety of colour to bring Leonore to wondrous life; once totally secure with the details (notably the ensembles when her body language spoke more of keeping the pulse than delivering the art) she will be in frequent demand. Christoph Strehl proved to be an engaging lovesick Jaquino but was at times unable to sing above and beyond the orchestra.
Overall, an inventive way to begin the season of love which, in varying ways, can stimulate all of our senses. JWR