Given the growing presence of western opera and the symphonic nature of Beethoven’s only contribution to the genre, it seems appropriate that the Chinese premiere of Fidelio last Sunday took place unstaged. The concert performance at the Beijing Concert Hall fitted squarely into the China National Symphony Orchestra’s season-long focus on the composer, bridging a gap between repertoire-hungry opera audiences and China’s more established symphonic culture.
But even making allowances for Chinese orchestras, almost uniformly string-heavy and wind-weak, the performance initially brought to mind Peter Schickele’s Beethoven-as-sportscast sketch, where a flubbing horn player is sent to the penalty box. By that token, most of the CNSO’s winds and brass would have been taken out by the end of the overture.
A funny thing happened, though, as soon as the singers came on stage: with no obvious change in personnel or stylistic direction from resident conductor Li Xincao, the orchestra became a different ensemble entirely – not only with greater rhythmic precision and fewer obtrusively bad notes but also in managing the tricky balance of being true to Beethoven’s idiom while maintaining an operatic sense of momentum.
Most of the credit goes to the vocal cast, a fine assortment of singers who, with no apparent approximation of costume – save soprano Janice Watson, the sole non-Chinese singer, who sang a colourfully understated Leonore/Fidelio in trousers and heels – kept things moving dramatically with small strokes. Jingma Fan’s Floristan was a heroic presence, Sun Li’s Pizarro an imposing one. Jiang Yong’s Marzellina was as charmingly lyrical as Liu Yue’s Rocco was robust. Chinese translations for both sung and spoken German were projected on both sides of the hall.
There were a couple of missteps. The Beijing Festival Chorus performed with a little too much church-choir smoothness and the cast often had to fight to be heard above an on-stage orchestra (thus making an argument for the less-than-discreetly placed microphones). But the CNSO audience had plenty to applaud – which they did enthusiastically without the usual ambivalence about interrupting symphonic movements.
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