The unexpected beauties of Beethoven4:17, 1st April 2020
‘If I could write a letter to Beethoven I would ask him why he didn’t write a second opera – maybe even a comic one. Maybe he even found a libretto that interested him. Perhaps he should even have written three operas, not one three times, like Fidelio.’
Soprano Chen Reiss hasn’t gone mad – quite the opposite, she is fascinatingly erudite in her explanation of Beethoven’s writing for the voice. She is just musing on the fact when she sings singspiel aria ‘Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken’ (A shoe shouldn’t squeeze, or pinch) that German-speaking audiences really laugh, not something that one generally expects from Beethoven. Reiss has just released an album of pieces by the composer –and as he often developed a passion for the female singer for whom he wrote she has named it Immortal Beloved, inspired by the famous love letter Beethoven wrote to a woman whose identity has never been discovered.
‘I recently sang Marzelline in Leonore in Vienna; it’s the first version of Fidelio, which I’d already performed there. When I looked at the music I saw a gorgeous duet between Leonore and Marzelline, something I didn’t know existed. So I started looking for more Beethoven vocal music and I found that there were lots of recordings scattered around – it’s all there but not so well-known. And I asked myself why isn’t this standard repertoire, when singers always perform Handel and Mozart concert arias and cantatas? Beethoven has a reputation for not being the friendliest composer for the voice, but some of the pieces are really good to sing.” She adds that the already successful Beethoven studied with Salieri, ‘because I think he knew deep inside that the writing for the voice didn’t come so organically to him, so he needed lessons and Salieri was a master of writing for the voice”. And she clearly articulates the increased accomplishment that Beethoven displays as he gains in compositional skill. ‘The opening aria, “Fliesse, Wonnezähre, fliesse!” (1790) is difficult and I really had to practice the coloratura, it’s very instrumental, as though it’s written for a violin – and the intervals are not very vocal. But I love a challenge!’ But the great concert aria Ah! Perfido (1796) is much better to sing. ‘One needs a very clear vocal plan – but you just have to practice. It means I stretched my voice further, but then I feel I am ready to move from Zerlina to Donna Anna, it feels comfortable for me. And we know that singers then were lighter. I’m no Birgit Nilsson!’ she laughs. ‘I feel the sound of my voice is more the sound Beethoven would have expected. I sang Ah! perfido last night to great reaction. Today, more voices in my fach are singing this music.’
Reiss sounds regretful that Beethoven cut Marzelline’s role so much as he reworked Leonore into Fidelio, explaining that the opera started with a less political feel and was more romantic. The earlier version sheds more light on her,:‘She represents how women were viewed by society, their role marrying and looking after a husband. Marzelline’s love is dutiful. Leonore is a different character – more an independent modern woman – her love goes much further.’
The Romanza from Leonore Prohaska, incidental music for a play, is sung by a real life woman who dressed as a man and went to war. ‘It’s not typical Beethoven, so vulnerable – we always think of him like the Ninth Symphony, lots of noise – it shows his intimate world and loneliness, the voice intertwining with harp. In Italian music the singer stays in the middle, in Mozart the orchestra accompanies the singer, but with Beethoven the orchestra is just as important a character as the singer and it’s more of a dialogue.’
Reiss talks about the project. ‘On a solo album I’m the boss – I chose the repertoire completely, the title, the order – I feel it’s my baby. And when I go on tour with the programme I chose the pieces I would like to sing.’ She is passionate about it. ‘I hope that singers and concert presenters will listen to it and think hey, that’s really good music. It’s always Perfido – but why not one of the other scenes. Beethoven’s sense of theatre was amazing!”