A Visionary Fidelio

Beethoven – Fidelio

Leonore – Emma Bell

Florestan – Bryan Register

Don Pizarro – Philip Horst

Rocco – James Creswell

Marzelline – Sarah Tynan

Jaquino – Adrian Dwyer

Don Fernando – Roland Wood

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Edward Gardner.

Stage Director – Calixto Bieito

Coliseum, London. Thursday, October 3rd, 2013.

There are as many reasons for going to the opera as there are opera-goers.  Each person is different and each person will derive pleasure from the aspect of opera that appeals to them.  There is no right or wrong way to enjoy the art form only the way that works for you.  For me, I love seeing a familiar work presented as new, having my preconceptions challenged and being made to think.  At the same time, I also enjoy watching a favourite singer or discovering a new artist excelling what they thought physically possible even if the staging isn’t amazing.

I have mentioned before that Calixto Bieito’s production of Il Trionfo del tempo e del disinganno was one of the most moving opera productions I have ever seen, one that made me reflect on the course of my own life with all of its pleasures and difficulties.  Tonight, with this Fidelio, I felt that he achieved the same thing managing to bring the work to life as new but also creating something extraordinarily moving that left me completely devastated at the end.  If you are thinking of going to see it, I would strongly recommend not reading this piece but waiting until afterwards.  It’s a staging that benefits from not having preconceptions and to a certain extent, I regret having read what I had about it.

At first in Act 1, it seems that the personalities are not particularly sharply defined, we don’t really get to know them or care about them.  Part of this is created by the almost total absence of dialogue.  A very small part of it is kept, the rest is made up of interpolated quotes from Borges and Cormac McCarthy.  Yet, for me, this is part of the success of the staging.  Up until Leonore’s ‘Abscheulicher’ the people on the set are effectively unknown, almost faceless prisoners who exist in a separate world to us and are separate, unable to relate to each other in their boxes that despite moving between, they are unable to escape from.  It is only when Leonore sings her big aria that we really start to get a sense of the fact that she is a flesh and blood character with real emotions and real hopes.  The prisoners chorus is beautifully staged, each prisoner carrying a photo on his chest as if to demonstrate that that is what he is reduced to.

The second act starts with a stunning coup de theatre with the set descending around and encasing Florestan who becomes completely trapped.  Yet when Florestan and Leonore finally get to recognize each other, ‘namenlose Freude’ is not this big moment of catharsis but rather the attempt of two ordinary people to return to their ordinary world.  They achieve this by changing out of their prison ‘drag’ into an unexceptional blue dress and a suit respectively.  What happens next is devastating, a string quartet descends from the flies to play the slow movement from the Op 132 quartet while Leonore and Florestan attempt to get to know each other again the pain of recognition and acceptance completely palpable.  One could debate the musicological merits of the insertion of the quartet but for me, there is no doubt that it was extremely dramatically effective.  The triumphalism that follows which so often feels empty now genuinely means something yet we are always aware of each person’s physical and metaphorical prison with, despite the celebrations, prisoners still visibly encased in the structure of the prison.

It was a most remarkable piece of theatre well executed by the singers.  From the men the singing was serviceable, from the ladies much more than that.  Emma Bell’s Leonore grew throughout the evening her ‘Komm Hoffnung’ beautifully done with a smooth legato and radiant high notes.  Occasionally, her dusky timbre could have done with a little more bite in the confrontation with Pizarro in Act 2 but she soared beautifully above the ensemble in the final scene.  Sarah Tynan’s Marzelline was also nicely done – a beautifully crystal-clear tone contrasting nicely with Adrian Dwyer’s elegant Jaquino.  James Creswell’s nice solid bass was an excellent Rocco but Philip Horst’s grainy Pizarro was seriously underpowered.  Bryan Register’s opening aria was not the most immaculately sung but he rallied and gave a convincing performance that when combined with Bell’s Leonore was deeply moving.

The ENO Chorus was on excellent form and the sound that Edward Gardner got from the orchestra – minimal vibrato in the strings – worked really well.  Unfortunately I found his conducting somewhat four-square and the phrasing choppy.  It didn’t really have the vim that I like in my Beethoven but he was highly supportive to his singers.

This was an incredible evening in the theatre and one that for me really encapsulates all that I love in the art form.  There are only a couple of performances left but I encourage anyone who can to go see it.

Photo: (C) Tristram Kenton

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