There will be few bolder tributes in this 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth than David Lang’s prisoner of the state, a re-working of the great man’s sole opera, Fidelio.

First seen at the Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall in New York in June 2019 (from where this recording is taken) at just 65 minutes it is a considerably more compact proposition than its progenitor. Lang’s fleshing-out of Fidelio’s“skeleton” finds him in familiar territory: locking antlers with a ‘masterpiece’ – he’s gainfully tackled Bach, Wagner and Schubert before – to exploit its strengths and accommodate its weaknesses.

Borrowing from Fidelio and its earlier incarnation, Leonore, Lang’s libretto strips away sub-plots and secondary narratives to move the prisoners, once seen then all but forgotten by Beethoven, pertinently centre-stage. It also incorporates salient texts by philosophers Machiavelli, Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham and Hannah Arendt.

Musically, however, prisoner of the state is Lang’s alone. Pointedly side-stepping any references to Beethoven, his immediately approachable, largely tonal score oscillates between lightly worn minimalism, biting dramatic vehemence and an operatic luxuriousness lit up by moments of diaphanous beauty. If it never quite comes fully into focus (a criticism that could equally be laid at Fidelio’s door) there’s no doubting Lang’s sincerity or sensitivity to the material.

Nor is there any denying the committed advocacy of the New York Philharmonic – its expressive, characterful strings and woodwinds especially – with Jaap van Zweden in his first season as music director at the helm. On the strength of this fluid, forceful performance, it’s clearly a partnership of promise and potential.

As Leonore/Fidelio counterpart The Assistant, Julie Mathevet makes an impressive debut on disc. Singing with radiant soprano lustre in early passages where Lang affords her greater poetry, she’s no less impressive in later scenes where darker undercurrents burst through in a climactic moment of interrupted violence – a coup de théâtre that falls somewhat flat on disc.

Jarrett Ott’s Prisoner is as impassioned as he can be with a largely passive role, heroically defiant in the face of adversity personified by Alan Oke’s villainous devil-incarnate Governor and the formidably-sung Jailer of bass-baritone Eric Owens. As the ever-present prisoners’ chorus, the Men of the Concert Chorale of New York provide solid vocal underpinning throughout.

If, despite all its adroitly marshalled manipulation, Lang’s homage ultimately feels frustratingly unresolved, prisoner of the state still packs a punch and is a fascinating and vital addition to the repertoire.

Composer: David Lang
Work: Prisoner of the State
Performers: Soloists, New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden
Label: Decca 4819454

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