Stormy weather

BSO cancellations, plus the Camerata, Jonathan Biss, Emmanuel Music, and more
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 28, 2007

The Prazak Quartet

The BSO has been having terrible luck hanging on to its star soloists. Pianist Martha Argerich cancelled her engagement earlier this month, and then an unspecified illness forced glamorous Metropolitan Opera soprano Karita Mattila to bow out of Beethoven’s Fidelio. Not for the first time, the BSO turned to soprano Christine Brewer (in January 2006, without benefit of rehearsal, she replaced Deborah Voigt in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis). Rescue is certainly the operative word: Leonore, Beethoven’s heroine, disguises herself as a man (named Fidelio — the faithful one) in order to release her husband, Florestan, who’s being held as a political prisoner. It’s one of the most demanding soprano roles in opera.

Then before the first performance, orchestra manager Ray Wellbaum announced that Brewer was fighting a cold. If you were listening for signs of strain, you might have detected a few in Brewer’s highest and loudest notes — though it’s a rare soprano who sounds effortless under ideal conditions. Brewer has a brightly focused, heroic voice and passion in her delivery. Her spoken dialogue sounded both understated and believable. Her Florestan, South African tenor Johan Botha, has a thrilling clarion voice, though without much variety of timbre. Florestan has been captive for two years and is on the verge of dementia and starvation. In Sarah Caldwell’s 1976 production, Jon Vickers managed to suggest these qualities and yet still fill the hall. He tore your heart out. Botha sounded awfully healthy for a character in such dire circumstances. Still, the orchestra (after a somewhat rough start), the magnificent Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Levine’s understanding of how Beethoven’s essentially symphonic structure is the underlying source of drama (the extended celebratory finale contains the glorious insistence of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies combined) kept me riveted, finally sweeping me away with the sincerity of its optimism that good really can triumph over evil.

Beethoven revised his only opera twice over a period of nine years after its 1805 premiere. You can hear him moving from Mozartian comedy (with echoes of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Zauberflöte) to echt Beethoven. In the comedy, Jaquino, the prison gatekeeper (sung to perfection by the elegant Met tenor Matthew Polenzani), is hopelessly in love with the jailkeeper’s daughter (pretty-voiced Scottish soprano Lisa Milne), who has fallen for “Fidelio.” Warmly resonant bass Robert Lloyd was the tender-hearted jailkeeper; bass-baritone Albert Dohmen (Bartók’s Bluebeard with the BSO last fall) the villainous Don Pizarro; James Morris the right-minded deus ex machina, Don Fernando; and in two superb cameos, as prisoners, we got Boston favorites tenor William Hite and baritone Robert Honeysucker.

The brief but intense Nor’easter two weekends back was bad news not only for the music groups that lost revenue but for the music-going public forced to miss a couple of the best concerts of the season. At the BSO, the week before Fidelio, James Levine returned with a reprise of Mahler’s overwhelming Third Symphony, which he last played with the BSO in 2001, seven months before 9/11 and nine months before he was named music director.

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