Monday, 16 December 2013


In a recent production of ‘Fidelio’ a string quartet descended from the flies in wire mesh boxes, playing — no, not John Cage, but a movement from Beethoven’s own late quartet opus 132. The TLS reviewer Guy Damman says it was the second movement, which seems an odd choice; I would have expected the third, the Molto Adagio in the Lydian Mode. But I wasn’t there and Guy Damman presumably was, and anyway he teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so I suppose we must take his word for it.

Many people don’t ‘hold with’ this messing around with established works, but in the case of Beethoven’s (mercifully) one and only opera it might be justified: Beethoven’s Mary Whitehouse-ish views on fit subjects for the stage meant opera wasn’t really his thing, so directors feel he needs a little help.

‘Fidelio’ tells the story of Florestan, unjustly imprisoned for political reasons. His wife Fidelio/Leonora dresses up as a man (are there any operas without cross-dressing?) and gets a job as a screw so that she can see her husband. Later, an off-stage trumpet call announces the imminent arrival of a liberal Minister to free Florestan, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Whole books full of Great Operatic Disasters have been written; one of my favourite true stories concerns a performance of one of the several overtures, also featuring the off-stage trumpet call, at the Albert Hall in London. The trumpet player stationed himself in one of the audience boxes, but when he raised his instrument to his lips at the crucial moment, an officious but ill-informed attendant dashed in and tried to restrain him from disrupting the concert. Trumpet players are used to playing in difficult conditions, (I used to play the trumpet myself, and may do so again if no-one stops me), and apart from a faltering first note or two the audience didn’t notice anything wrong.

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