Searching for Hope: Fidelio at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna

Beethoven – Fidelio

Leonore – Magdalena Anna Hofmann
Florestan – Daniel Frank
Rocco – Petri Lindroos
Marzelline – Anna Maria Sarra
Jaquino – Sascha Emanuel Kramer
Don Pizarro – Lucio Gallo
Don Fernando – Nicolò Donini
Zwei Gefangene – Andrea Taboga, Tommaso Norelli

Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna / Asher Fisch.
Stage director – Georges Delnon

Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Bologna, Italy.  Thursday, November 14th, 2019.

This new production of Fidelio, imported from Hamburg, is only the third in the history of this magnificent theatre, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna.  Entrusted to Hamburg’s Intendant, Georges Delnon, it makes for an interesting evening in the theatre, as well as a showcase for the house’s excellent orchestra and chorus.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi – Studio Casaluci

Delnon sets up the work with an intriguing premise.  Pensive quotes from Müller and Büchner on the stage curtain suggest that what we may be watching could be a dream or a flashback, presumably that of Leonore.  Certainly, the fact that the walls of the set open up – like those recessed shelving units found in academic libraries – and reveal apparently dead prisoners, a naked man who’d been whipped, or indeed Florestan himself sitting with a typewriter and piles of documents, suggest what we’re seeing is metaphorical rather than literal.  An impression reinforced through the use of video to show, through the windows at the back of the set, a flight through a verdant forest during the Act 1 quartet, while the four characters sing around a dining room table.  The costumes (Lydia Kirchleitner) are redolent of the 1960s, perhaps setting the action in Francoist Spain or even the GDR, periods rich in inspiration for a production of this work.  Yet this is an element that feels underexplored, leaving this spectator with a lack of clarity over what Delnon was trying to achieve.  As a straightforward reading of the text, it works on its own terms, but I kept wondering if Delnon was attempting to do something else.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi – Studio Casaluci

There were hints of the unacceptable treatment of women in this society.  In the Act 2 introduction, Marzelline fights Jaquino off as he forces himself on her, only for her to be taken away by Pizarro.  Yet again, this feels underexplored and added on later.  Similarly, in the finale, the impact of those mighty opening choral shouts of jubilance were muted by the fact that Delnon had parked the chorus at the far rear of the stage.  I was waiting for Delnon to pull the rug from under our feet, to take the action in a different direction, perhaps to illustrate the fundamental illusion of freedom, but nothing happened.  Instead, he moved the chorus to the front, the principals to the back, ultimately out of sight (but still audible), and switched the house lights on.  Perhaps he was making a point about how we all have a role in preserving freedom and fighting for it, but again it felt unclear and tagged on.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi – Studio Casaluci

Musically, the house forces reinforced the very positive impression they made in last February’s Salome.  The Comunale chorus was on blistering form.  The gentlemen were extremely well disciplined in the Prisoners’ Chorus, with immaculately placed final consonants and carefully voiced blend.  Joined by the ladies, the closing chorus was sung with such enthusiastic, full-throated glee that it was impossible not to be uplifted.  Asher Fisch led the forces in a sensibly paced but rather earthbound reading.  Tempi were well judged, never felt rushed, but likewise never dragged.  The orchestra played extremely well for him – winds were nicely forward and string intonation was good with vibrato used but not excessively.  The horns were extremely well behaved in ‘Komm Hoffnung’, dispatching the treacherously difficult writing with assurance.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi – Studio Casaluci

Magdalena Anna Hofmann was making her role debut in this run as Leonore.  She sang and spoke the role with genuine feeling and everything she did was honestly sung.  That said, to my ears it sounds like a fundamentally lyric instrument made artificially wider to increase in size, but with the result that the voice sat on either side of the note rather than directly on it.  Similarly, the top sounds tight and effortful, Hofmann having to physically lean back to produce more volume.  There also seems to be a limited range of tone colours.  While I appreciated the clarity of her diction and the sensitivity of her portrayal, I’m afraid the impression I left with was that it was vocally problematic.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi – Studio Casaluci

As her husband, Daniel Frank brought a massive, steely tenor to his role.  The voice is bright and well placed with volume to spare – which he definitely made use of in his opening ‘Gott!’, growing from a whisper to an enormous roar.  As with many before him, the final section of his big scene started to run out of gas, but he was a positive presence in the ensembles that followed.  Petri Lindroos sang Rocco with a big, cavernous bass.  The voice is somewhat unwieldy, as it didn’t always sit directly on the note, but he was a warm and humane presence in the ensembles.  Lucio Gallo sang a vicious Pizarro, in admirably crisp German.  He was a commanding stage presence, but the voice does now sound rather dry throughout and especially arid on the bottom.  He got through ‘Ha! Welch ein Augenblick’ on sheer determination, experience and volume.  Anna Maria Sarra sang a pleasant Marzelline, the voice not quite penetrating beyond the footlights at first, but as the evening went on, she revealed a bright, glassy soprano with decent agility.  Sascha Emanuel Kramer’s narrow yet sappy tenor gave us an efficient Jaqino, while he more than brought out Delnon’s brutish vision of the character in his stage actions.  Nicolò Donini’s handsome baritone was heard to good advantage as Fernando but the text could have been slightly clearer.

Photo: © Andrea Ranzi – Studio Casaluci

On the whole this was a rather mixed evening, but I left the theatre elated and uplifted.  While the conducting was efficient, the staging good to look yet ultimately undercooked, and the solo singing was honourable, what took the evening to a higher plain was the uninhibited joyfulness of the singing of the Comunale chorus.  There was a genuineness to their vocalism that felt of a piece with Beethoven’s optimistic vision.  Perhaps that’s the point – that there is reason for optimism, but it has to come from within us as a collective.  In these bleak times, it might be all we can hope for.

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