Beethoven with the Discovery Ensemble, the BSO, and Opera Boston

Courtney Lewis
The Boston Phoenix

By Lloyd Schwartz

We've had a good deal of Beethoven recently, with the high bar being set by young Courtney Lewis — a former Zander Fellow and the current assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra — and his extraordinary young chamber orchestra, Discovery Ensemble (with Joshua Weilerstein as the exceptional concertmaster). In the past couple of years, they've presented some of the best concerts around, though they still haven't found the audience they deserve. People come back again and again, but Sanders Theatre still remains less than half full. This is particularly disheartening because their mid-October concert was one of their most thrilling. It began with Bohuslav Martinu's grim pre–World War II Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani, then proceeded to an insinuating and enchanting Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1 (yes, enchanting Schoenberg! — and witty!), and then on to one of the most exciting and moving performances of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony I've ever heard. Absolutely riveting from beginning to end (and it's not short), with one insight, one revelation, after another (especially in the structural highlighting of Beethoven's underlying rhythmic patterns), yet unfussy, completely honest, unmannered, forward-moving yet not mechanical — all brilliantly performed and totally engaged, both emotionally and intellectually. Without wallowing in sentiment, the funeral march was about as piercing and powerful as I've ever heard it.

It's rare for me to get excited about a Beethoven symphony these days. After the BSO's disappointing complete cycle last season, without the central presence of James Levine, I wasn't eager to hear any more Beethoven symphonies for a while. But I left Sanders Theatre wanting to hear them all. The Pastorale is on Discovery Ensemble's November 12 program at Sanders. Being there might make you even happier than reading about it.

I didn't envy new BSO assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger, a cherubic 31-year-old from Brazil, his first Boston assignment: leading Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman. A great conductor can provide this piece with shape and unity and weight, but here Lehninger was — perhaps inevitably — more accompanist than collaborator. Zukerman, in high celebrity mode and practically on automatic pilot, played less for large-scale continuity or "meaning" than for disconnected moments of bravura or prettiness. If you cared about what Beethoven had to say, this was not a satisfying performance. Too bad the BSO didn't pair Lehninger with the great Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who'll be here next month, since they've already toured together in South America.

Lehninger had a livelier and more personal presence in the opening piece, Samuel Barber's School for Scandal Overture (his scintillating and tricky first work for full orchestra), once a BSO staple but now rarely programmed. And though the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony that concluded the program drew impressive playing from the orchestra, and got a big ovation, this long, autobiographical work lacked a strong sense of direction (movements rather stopped than built to powerful climaxes) or inner life. The best Tchaikovsky conductors know how to fill even the composer's droopiest melancholy with a rhythmic urgency. Is it cruel to say that Lehninger conducted as if his job, not his life, depended on it? But I'm also curious to hear more from him.

And then there was Opera Boston's new production of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, a fully staged version of which hasn't been seen in Boston since Sarah Caldwell's in 1976. At first blush, stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's idea of setting this opera about political repression, heroic rescue, and the meaning of freedom in the context of the Spanish Inquisition didn't seem like such a bad idea (though you might think that Monty Python had had the last word on the subject). But the production muddled the distinction between political and religious oppression, and Strassberger's gratuitous dollops of sadism turned Beethoven's idealism into something utterly repellent. We got an invented torture scene in which a young woman is branded with a red-hot poker on the villain's dining-room table — I'm not making this up — and then waterboarded. We got lust: the villain — a priest — grabs the ingénue and pulls her onto his lap, in what's more like a scene out of Tosca, Puccini's "shabby little shocker," than from the noble Fidelio. We got violence, the villain "roasting in agony over a pile of heat lamps," as a friend put it, during Beethoven's joyous final chorus.

Strassberger seems to be one of those stage directors who can't let a good thing alone. Why couldn't he trust the composer? Almost every important musical moment was muddied by extraneous, irrelevant, distracting business. In "Abscheulicher!" ("Monster!"), the heroine's great prayer for hope, Leonore, disguised as a boy in order to find her political-prisoner husband, has reached a dead end. It's one of opera's loneliest moments. But during the aria, Strassberger had her surrounded by monks carrying a string of electric lightbulbs (in the 16th century!) focused first on their own faces, then on the audience. In this middle of his aria of despair, Florestan (clean shaven and with hair remarkably well trimmed given that he's been in a dungeon for two years) started swinging a lamp dangling from the ceiling. Who could concentrate on the music?

Instead of attempting to unite Beethoven's problematic combination of high drama and a comic subplot (the young girl falls in love with a boy who's really a woman in disguise), Strassberger played this element of operetta as a coarser style of sit-com. Although he wisely used English for the spoken dialogue, the uncredited translation was filled with phrases like "God damn it!" He clearly didn't trust the libretto, either. "I must not linger over my work," Marzelline, the jailer's daughter, sings. The libretto tells us that she's in the prison courtyard, ironing. Strassberger had her looking into a mirror and admiring herself. In one of the most moving moments in opera, Rocco, the good-hearted jailer, releases the prisoners into the "open air" of the prison yard, but Strassberger had them moved to a dark room in the villain's palace — and the First Prisoner's hopeful solo was sung by a priest. I understand both those in the audience who left during the intermission and those who stayed to boo the director.

The staging repeatedly undermined a strong cast capable of meeting many of Beethoven's extreme vocal challenges. Once soprano Christine Goerke got past the difficult slow section of "Abscheulicher!", she sang with powerful projection and searing accuracy. And she was a touching presence. Tenor Michael Hendrick's voice cracked on a couple of high notes (the character is, after all, in extremis), and his Florestan didn't seem all that happy to see Leonore, but he was otherwise plausible and even admirable. Bass Andrew Funk was a sympathetic, warm-voiced Rocco, baritone Scott Bearden a convincingly villainous Don Pizarro (he was booed too, but I'm sure as a sign of his effectiveness). Tenor Jason Ferrante and minxish soprano Meredith Hansen were capable comic figures. And as Don Fernando, the rescuing minister (or archbishop?), veteran baritone Robert Honeysucker deserved the big hand he got, both for his noble, resonant singing and for having to appear in an over-the-top (not a figure of speech) mitre and acres of hyacinth-and-gilt robes.

The superb chorus deserves special praise. The hushed Prisoners' Chorus was the most moving scene in the production. Gil Rose led it with subtlety and graceful restraint. Elsewhere, Rose and his orchestra never quite settled into conveying Beethoven's urgency. The famous Fidelio Overture seemed tame. For a few minutes, though, because it was played with the curtain down and not staged (a cliché of so many opera productions these days), I had hopes that this time the music would be the prime mover. I was wrong. As they used to say during the Spanish Inquisition: "Oy vey!"