Beethoven’s 250th birthday finally arrived last week. We shouldn’t mind, for his sake, that so many brilliantly planned celebrations worldwide had to be spiked. There’s been enough Beethoven in the air, and on air – notably Donald Macleod’s year-spanning Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 – to confirm this unknowable genius as a fountainhead of western music. We should, and do, mind on account of the musicians for the loss of their art and earnings; and for the organisers who paddle frantically to make concerts happen, un-happen and re-happen on a daily basis. So when the chorus and soloists of Opera North, nearing the end of an enthralling live stream of Fidelio from Leeds town hall, sang “Blessed be this day, which we/ longed for and did not dare to expect”, our hearts were full.
You can pick many singular moments in Beethoven’s only opera, from the hushed chorus of prisoners as they stagger into daylight, to the music at the start of Act 2, when the solo oboe pierces the orchestral shadows like a torch beam. From this performance, with Rachel Nicholls fearless and candid as Leonore and Toby Spence lyrical but strong as Florestan, I’d choose the finale: an unparalleled display of human joy and musical euphoria, soloists and chorus in alternating surges of energy, voices soaring ever higher in an ecstatic cry for truth and freedom.
Conducted briskly and passionately by Mark Wigglesworth, directed minimally but effectively by Matthew Eberhardt, this performance was near ideal: no dialogue, only David Pountney’s narration sagely delivered by Matthew Stiff (who also sang Don Fernando). The British cast excelled: Robert Hayward’s hissing, villainous Pizarro; Fflur Wyn’s bright, sympathetic Marzelline; Oliver Johnston’s intelligent but spurned Jaquino; and Brindley Sherratt’s troubled Rocco, a man who runs deeper than you first think. Opera North’s orchestra and chorus, reduced in scale, sounded mighty.
Three other operas deserve high, if concise, praise. Grange Park Opera’s Owen Wingrave – free on demand, in two parts, on YouTube – beautifully directed by Stephen Medcalf, superbly sung, brings Britten’s uneasy work to life in all its torment. Monochrome save for a ghostly, fluttering union jack, this filmed version captures the oppressive atmosphere of family life for the military Wingraves, who spurn the misfit Owen. A top-flight cast is led by Ross Ramgobin in the title role and Kitty Whately, heart-wrenching as Kate. Gripping, taxing, rewarding.
Scottish Opera’s filmed staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte – cleverly played as a gameshow without flogging the idea – gives a platform to SO’s emerging artists, each singer bursting with promise and a recent graduate of the scheme, Charlie Drummond as Fiordiligi, proving the company’s ability to spot star quality.
In festive mood, the small and thriving Northern Opera Group triumphed with a rarity, Cinderella by Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). Famous as a mezzo-soprano, friend of George Sand and Chopin, love object of Turgenev and a battalion of other famous men, she wrote this chamber operetta late in life. Directed by Sophie Gilpin, the production – filmed on location in Leeds, with Claire Wild an enchanting Cinders – caught the wit of the piece, with a much-needed sprinkling of magic.
Which leaves one other event, entailing a dash out into the wilds of live performance last Monday while we still could. The organist David Titterington, with narration from Timothy West, performed Messiaen’s visionary La Nativité du Seigneur at St John’s Smith Square in London. Titterington’s ability to make angels dance on a three-manual tracker-action organ with 48 stops and 3,574 pipes knows no bounds. A tiny, organ-mad, Messiaen-mad crowd listened to this nine-part meditation on the Christmas story, and pondered.