Monday, May 17, 2010

Ihr habt mich süß erquickt

I think the joke was first aired by my flatmate and fellow Ph.D. candidate as we exited Walküre: there's nothing like opera to put one's own woes into perspective. In sober truth, living in one of the non-glamorous neighborhoods of New York City is a very healthy incentive to retaining a properly humble and optimistic outlook on life. But there are still times where nothing less than Beethoven can restore my faith that, in the words of one of my favorite medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich, all manner of things shall be well.

More excerpts of this performance may be found here, DVD information here; apparently, if under less-than-official auspices, for sale here. If I were to utter a perfunctory criticism, it might be of the blocking, or of Rocco's stiffness (I respect Greindl enormously, but he would not be in my list of my top three Roccos, nor his Rocco in the list of his top three roles. This is a matter of taste, clearly, and I'd love to hear other opinions.) But I love this, for all the reasons I love Fidelio. The Met's most recent production tries to evade some of the implausibility of the emotional interactions in this scene; this production has Leonore more visibly distraught than I've ever seen or heard her. One really does wonder what Rocco makes of his future son-in-law. But Christa Ludwig makes me believe. Sobbing in his open grave? I prefer it to the stage direction that has her faint (my Leonore is not a fainter.) I will willingly suspend my disbelief and cheer Leonore on in productions which have her holding on to steely self-control a little harder, a little longer. But I can believe this too: that's the human being she loves most in the world; she hasn't seen him in over two years; she knows him body and soul and she still can't recognize him before that moment.

All right, I'm sentimental; a sap, as the 1940s Hollywood movies I grew up on would have it. But for me, Fidelio is a wonderful journey containing raw emotional truth, where questions of "realism" are completely out of place. I know it's been widely critiqued as flawed. I have friends and relations whom it leaves cold. But I love it; I love the layering of words like "Pflicht" and "Ruhe" in the libretto (essays on similar topics, though sadly not that one, here.) I love the music; I love the drama. This performance was my first encounter with the entirety of James King's legendary Florestan. But gorgeous as his voice is, and moving as his portrayal, it is Christa Ludwig who has me in awe. Going in, I didn't think I could love her desperate, adoring Leonore any more. But I was fascinated by how her Leonore--fierce, resolute, and quick-witted--was here also so vulnerable. I love how--having wept as he takes the wine--she doesn't trust herself to kneel next to him to give him the bread. I am utterly convinced, and deeply moved, by the changing expressions on her face as he convulsively grabs her hands. I love how her instinct is to stroke his hair (a gesture for which I had previously given Johan Simons' 2008 Paris production credit for originality.) Through her phrasing on the repeated "O mehr als ich ertragen kann," I can hear and feel the sense of sick vertigo that comes from her emotional distress.

All this, and it makes me feel better? Well, yes. I think the music is exquisite, and what it expresses... sie dringt in die Tiefe des Herzens. For Rocco softens, if marginally, and lets his better feelings guide him. Florestan still believes that in Seville, his wife will want and need to know what's happened to him, and may be able to do something about it. After having been the object of so much undeserved cruelty, he's still deeply grateful for an act of kindness, and eager to show kindness in return. And Leonore, Leonore who has vowed that this broken man will not be sacrificed, has her reward in finding that it is, indeed, her husband for whom she risks her life, and to whom she can give no more than stale bread and wine. And even so close to despair, they find hope.


  1. Oh, I love Fidelio too. Have you seen the Walter Felsenstein film? It's weird, very Eisenstein-ish. He emphasizes the difference between the dark prison interiors and the natural light and exterior space in a way that you can't get onstage that makes Florestan's ascent into daylight somewhat amazing. Unfortunately the score is cut and the singing isn't very good, but it's still interesting.

  2. No, I have not seen the Felsenstein! Clearly one to be added to my summer viewing list. Thanks for the tip (with caveats.)


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