In the first floor parlor of a late 19th Upper West Side, restored-to-period brownstone, a small group of art aficionados listened as Opera Lafayette’s Artistic Director Ryan Brown presented highlights from Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera. Brown fleshed out the scenes of a wife in men’s garb sneaking into a prison to find her wrongly incarcerated spouse. Then, he conducted pianist Michael Fennelly to take on the roles of the four Chamber music instruments. Tenor John-Michel Richer sang the husband’s aria and musicologist/musician Will Crutchfield explained how he had recreated its lost components. As the music wafted over us, we looked around the wood paneled room. Gazing up, a stunning theatrical chandelier made us muse there was a Phantom below. Around us were period paintings and drawings of original opera stars and sets. It was a New York moment, but we could have been in Vienna, where more celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth are taking place, that some in the room will fly to attend.
Restoration of art to its original grandeur was a key note of the afternoon. Opera Lafayette restores productions to the way their composers envisioned them. Not only was the missing aria reimagined, for “Leonore,” the original version of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” but the company performs with original period instruments. Because, Artistic Director Ryan Corrick Brown explained, the sound is truly different. He compared it to first time they washed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: “They discovered, ‘Oh my God, all those colors are really bright and contrasting, not dusty and homogenous!’ That’s what we’re after. For instance, when a modern horn plays a scale, it plays it evenly, so the tones on each note are similar. But when a horn plays on a valveless instrument, such as was used in that day and age, the color from one note of the scale to the next changes and it will have very different sound.”
“Leonore” is the centerpiece of Opera Lafayette’s 25th anniversary season, with performances on Wednesday, February 26, 2020, 7:00 p.m. at The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater in Washington, DC and Monday, March 2, 2020, 7:00 p.m. at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City. Opera Lafayette is renowned for its performances of both lost masterworks, once popular and culturally significant to the history of the 17th through 19th centuries, and early opera that is already part of the modern canon. Preparations include robust research to present the operas as originally conceived and staging that illuminates the music’s original appeal and the way it speaks to the modern world. “Leonore,” for example, has a female heroine.
“On this 250 anniversary,” said Brown, “we are exploring not only why Beethoven is relevant today but whether there is something new to say about him. Most think of Beethoven as the first romantic and in terms of the 19th Century, but the guy was born in 1770. And it’s interesting for us to see how those composers who lived and worked before and after the French revolution (in the late 18th Century) were influenced by it. So this is our attempt to look at it from the point of view of someone who worked before the French Revolution, lived through the period and responded to it.”
Written in 1805, “Leonore,” was emblematic of the rescue opera form, which, Brown told us, became very popular before and after the Revolution. “This is a reaction to some of its worst excesses: of the terror, of people imprisoned or worse for, generally speaking, not what they did, so much as what they might have thought, that rings true for a lot of people in a lot of periods,” Brown continued. “Going along with that is figuring out what people felt back then, rather than putting them in the context of later history. Part of that is playing on period instruments, to know what they heard. They also performed in smaller halls, so it was a more intimate and immediate experience than it often is in the modern opera house. We’re trying to replicate those things.”
At the March 2, NYC performance, Soprano Nathalie Paulin returns to Opera Lafayette in the title role, bass-baritone Matthew Scollin makes his debut as Pizarro, Stephen Hegedus makes his company debut as Rocco, and the rest of the cast reprise their roles from Opera Lafayette’s 2017 production of “Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou L’Amour” conjugal. Director Oriol Tomas and costume and set designer Laurence Mongeau elaborate upon their work in that production, with new lighting by Rob Siler.
For more information, visit operalafayette.org.