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Faithful 'Fidelio' brings BSO cycle to rewarding close

Despite not feeling well, Christine Brewer (joined by Robert Lloyd) gave a brave and affecting performance as the heroine Leonore in Beethoven's 'Fidelio.' Despite not feeling well, Christine Brewer (joined by Robert Lloyd) gave a brave and affecting performance as the heroine Leonore in Beethoven's "Fidelio." (JAY CONNOR FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

For the past two seasons, the BSO under James Levine has been placing the work of Beethoven and Schoenberg in dialogue as two of music's great revolutionaries. That journey concluded last night with a robust and moving performance of Beethoven's sole opera "Fidelio."

The BSO had not performed the complete work since 1982, though in recent seasons at the Met, Levine has led many persuasive performances. The biggest challenge in bringing the work to Boston, it seemed, was finding a soprano up to the task of the title role. Just days ago the BSO announced that Karita Mattila had withdrawn due to illness and that she would be replaced by Christine Brewer. But then prior to last night's performance, it was announced from the stage that Brewer herself had been fighting a cold, though she would still be singing. In the end, Brewer proved more than up to the task. One could detect some tentativeness in her Act I singing but she gained strength and confidence as the evening wore on; she gave a brave and affecting performance.

Her character is the opera's heroine, Leonore, who disguises herself as Fidelio in order to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband Florestan, sung with fine ardency and vocal strength by Johan Botha. Robert Lloyd brought a rich, resonant bass and enjoyable dramatic flair to the role of Rocco, the prison warden whose daughter, Marzelline, is in love with Fidelio. Lisa Milne sang Marzelline with warmth and purity, and Matthew Polenzani lent a sure and sweet-toned tenor to the smaller role of Jaquino. Albert Dohmen was suitably sinister as the evil Don Pizarro, though on a few occasions he had trouble being heard over the orchestra. James Morris, William Hite, and Robert Honeysucker rounded out the solid cast.

It was an exceptional evening for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who distilled the collective yearning of prisoners for freedom into a sound of great force and even greater tonal beauty. The orchestra's playing in Act I was less fastidious than usual, but with Levine's sense of this score's pacing and architecture, the music ultimately built to a deeply satisfying and duly triumphant finish.

There was no Schoenberg on the program, but it was hard not to view the performance through the prism of the vast Schoenberg/Beethoven cycle, and especially Schoenberg's great opera, "Moses und Aron," which Levine and the BSO performed this fall. Among the many things one could say about this suggestive pairing of operas, it places in stark relief the poignant paradoxes of German history. "Fidelio," with its triumphant faith in divine justice and the human striving for freedom, became a cherished part of the noble German cultural tradition of which Schoenberg saw himself a part. But that tradition itself became a God that failed. The final scene of "Fidelio" trumpets love and liberation. The final act of "Moses und Aron" was never written.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at