3 MARCH 1961, Page 17


The Time Factor


TN one respect only last Friday's performance of Fidelio at Covent Gar- den was, to me, a bitter disappointment—in the decision to play the overture Leonore No. 3 as an interlude between the Dungeon Scene and the finale. This barbar- ous practice, so irrele- vant, so vain, so ruinous to the dramatic balance and shape of the opera, has been dying out, in England at least, and it was a shock to find it restored and canonised by the great doctor him- self. the austere Klemperer of all people, the one famous conductor who can usually be relied on to play what is written and respect the com- poser's intentions, who cuts out Wagner's horn parts from the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony and the interpolated trumpet notes from the opening of the last movement, and so on. Even in this case he has been pious; but it is piety to the wrong composer—to Mahler, not to Beet- hoven. (And it was not even Mahler who first thought of incorporating Leonore No. 3, that huge symphonic commentary on the opera, into the actual body of the work. At least as early as 1850 it was regularly played in London be- tween the two acts. By grafting it on to the heart of Act 2, Mahler simply turned a dubious idea into a damnable one.) Why, in this most crucial matter, did the wounded surgeon restrain his steel? It is not as if he does not take the loftiest and most con- sidered, consistent view of Fidelio. There are plenty of people who do not feel the work as a true dramatic entity, who cannot see that its theme of tyranny and freedom and love is worked out in satisfactory operatic terms, and who are too busy imagining a conflict between `singspiel elements' and epic music-drama to realise the masterly way in which the musical style gradually deepens and intensifies to match the gradual emergence of issues of life and death from their background of everyday gemiitlich normality. For such people, Leonore No. 3 is neither here nor there—except that playing it gives a plausibility to their claim that the final scene is poor stuff. But Klemperer is at the farthest pole from such unbelief. His conducting proclaims in every bar a faith that Fidelio is an organic whole.

Wagner said that the conductor's business is to indicate the correct time to the band. It is not, of course, tempo alone but the purpose he puts it to—the noble shaping of phrases, the clarity of significant detail, the exact weight and intensity of accent—that makes for this feeling of truth and completeness in Klemperer's Fidelio. But rightness of tempo is the foundation of it. How often one has heard Fidelios- Toscanini's and Furtwangler's not excluded—dis- figured by sudden aberrations of tempo for which there is no possible explanation short of the temporary madness of the conductor. With Klemperer on Friday there was, for me at least, never a moment when the music was forced to move at a violently uncharacteristic pulse (this is also a sovereign strength of Colin Davis's Fidelio at Sadler's Wells). Perhaps Pizarro's aria is too melodramatic a piece to stand such leisurely examination, and perhaps the E flat Andante con moto in the finale of Act 1, that rocking, uneasy, strangely dreamlike movement which is so hard to hit off exactly, began uncomfortably fast—though to judge by the way Klemperer later reined it in, this may well have been unin- tentional, a first-night mishap. Some of the tempi, like the grave-digging duet and the quartet in the dungeon and the great closing scene of the first act (an ideal combination of grandeur and vivacity) were of a perfection that one recog- nised with joy the instant they began.

Tempo, we are told, is essentially subjective. But only within certain objectively definable limits. By itself it may be nothing; the right tempo is not a precise metronomic number but depends on variable factors of texture, relative density, accent, rhythm, even climate, and so on. But when Giulini takes the opening of the fourth act finale of Figaro so rapidly that even the violins of the Philharmonia, playing brilliantly, cannot exe- cute their downward scales without sounding rushed and scampered, those objective limits must be seen to have been passed. Personal taste does not come into it.

Klemperer's Fidelio has a quality more essen- tial than Toscanini's dramatic vehemence and Furtwangler's emotional intensity: the music moves at its natural gait; it is granted the first condition of being itself. Not that it is unemo- tional or lacks dramatic excitement. The pulse is broad—Fidelio is an opera which should be laid on the rack—but it never sags; it is sustained and nourished by wonderfully full phrasing, glowingly clear orchestral sound, a bass line of giant strength and sforzatos with a superbly Beethoven- Ian crunch. Here and there an effect is made too little of, like the curious understatement of the crescendo bar in the Canon Quartet with its sud den, heart-easing descent into the subdominant. But this is very rare. The tension in the quartet in the dungeon is truly tremendous, and in the Canon Quartet the sound of the violas and cellos, stealing in at Rocco's spoken words 'Do you think I cannot see what is in your heart?' was to me quite overpowering on Friday. But it is a performance, cast in a titanic mould, in which no detail is overemphasised for momen- tary effect, the end is foreshadowed in the beginning, and until the white heat of the final chorus with the whole cast crowding the front of the stage and blazing its message to al 1 humanity, nothing is thrust at the audience to admire: we are treated like participants i a ritual who do not have to have its mean- ing spelled out to us.

Klemperer's cast is not perfect, but it is very strong. On the first night the admirable Rocco of Frick occasionally found the pulse of the music too slow for him and got ahead (impec- cable rhythm was a great virtue of Elsie Mori- son's Marzelline). Vickers's Florestan lost a little dignity by some over-fussy phrasing in his open- ing scene, but mostly it is a performance on the grand • scale. Hotter, a towering, tormented Pizarro, emanated evil like a huge bat (if only 'a• strange facial resemblance to Michael Tippe t had not intervened between me and my com- plete acceptance of him). The beautiful Jurinac, performing the part, with radiant tone and spier did ardour, for the first time, is still too romantic in manner and too externalised in feeling to be a really satisfying Leonore. Klemperer's produc- tion does not help her to communicate the inner agony and desperate resolution of the charac- ter; it imposes too many conventional rhetorical gestures on the actors. But its main outlines al e strong, clear and decisive. The dungeon scene is all that it should be. And the sublime last page of the first act is managed with a tact and a majesty and a punctuality that filled me with such gratitude as 1 have never felt in an opera house, mingled with astonishment that after all these years the curtain at Covent Garden could come down exactly when it ought to, not a second too soon.

'Come, mon cher colleague, let us go elsewhere —the Outer Seven are whooping it up in there.'