A Period-Instrument Ensemble Tackles Beethoven's FIDELIO

Jan 18, 2016

Grand Harmonie, the only period-instrument group in the United States exclusively focused on Classical and Romantic repertoire, seems to be based everywhere. Now in its fourth season, it's best known in Boston, has members in Philadelphia, and as the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns reports, is in Princeton this week performing an ambitious period-instrument version of Beethoven's opera, Fidelio.

David Patrick Stearns: The usual starting point of Beethoven's Fidelio, an opera about a woman who rescues her political prisoner husband, is heroic-sounding singers finding freedom. For Grand Harmonie, whose directors include brass players, the project began with French horns.  The ones Beethoven used seemed rudimentary compared to modern counterparts, but their distinctive buzz may be the soul of Beethoven's orchestra here. 

Yoni Kahn: You can just toss off those notes in the natural horn by wiggling your hand on the bell in a way that would be very difficult to replicate the same sense of ease and fluidity on a modern instrument.

DPS: That's Yoni Kahn, one of Grand Harmonie's co-directors.  And in music as deep as Beethoven's, the discoveries that are possible with leaner, less-expansive sounds are significant, says conductor Geoffrey McDonald.

Geoffrey McDonald: When you strip away the bigness and the thickness, these things reveal themselves in the score. They're sitting right there.

DPS: The challenges don't stop with the music. Theatrically, Fidelio is a messy, hybrid work that confronts stage director Julia Mintzer with no obvious solutions. 

Julia Mintzer: That's the adventure of it. Fidelio is two pieces combined. It is a light operetta and it is what some people have described as, essentially, a mass, an ode to concepts rather than to characters. And it is often the director's work to figure out how to weave these two things together. 

DPS: Nobody claims to have a right way of doing any of this. But that's one reason to come back to Fidelio, for all it's faulty exaltation. 

Information about the performance.