Standing Up for Freedom: Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Beethoven – Fidelio

Leonore – Lise Davidsen
Florestan – Jonas Kaufmann
Rocco – Georg Zeppenfeld
Marzelline – Amanda Forsythe
Jaquino – Robin Tritschler
Don Pizarro – Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Don Fernando –  Egils Siliņš
Zwei Gefangene – Filipe Manu, Timothy Dawkins

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage director – Tobias Kratzer.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020.

In an age of terror, where neighbour turns against neighbour, would you stand up against tyranny?  That’s the central tenet of Tobias Kratzer’s new staging of Fidelio for the London Royal Opera – and it’s an exceptionally powerful one.  Kratzer’s view of the work is unmistakably feminist, giving the women a much stronger role than we often see, making it very much ‘her’ story.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

As the audience enters the auditorium, it’s confronted by its own reflection showing a live video of the room with the words ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ super-imposed over this image.  Some audience members chose to wave at their reflection, others stood up to take selfies.  In doing so, Kratzer sets up an interesting question – he forces the audience to confront its own role in the plot.  Act 1 seems in many respects like a typical production in period costumes.  Transferred to the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the dialogue was re-written to refer to the ongoing events and the birth of the nascent republic.  The overture sees a group of women, Leonore among them, looking through a collection of disembodied heads to find their husbands, partners, brothers.  Leonore then reappears in drag as Fidelio.  This ideally sets up the story, contextualizing it in a believable way.  I also appreciated how Kratzer illustrated Marzelline finding Leonore removing her male clothing in ‘Komm, Hoffnung’.  The tension and heartbreak in Marzelline’s face as she realized that the man she loved was not in fact a man at all, and very much devoted to someone else, was heartrending.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

For Act 2, Kratzer takes his staging to another level.  We are confronted by Florestan chained to a rock, surrounded by people in modern dress.  This could be a reality show or indeed people watching a staged production of an opera.  Yet the message is clear, it’s easy to stand by when a man is imprisoned and tortured, to wait for someone else to intervene and avoid the audience getting its hands dirty.  The people stand by, horrified by what they saw, yet nobody lifting a finger.  Interestingly, Pizarro strikes Leonore to the ground, but she, Florestan and Rocco are rescued by Marzelline.  I found this a highly compelling idea and moving idea – that of a woman taking events into her own hands, so moved by another woman’s love of her husband, combined with her innate sense of justice that she took action.  Seeing this in a country where citizens’ rights are being removed, and where hate is legitimized at the highest levels of the state, this was an exceptionally powerful message.  That this production caused people to boo at the premiere a few days ago, or caused a storm on social media with some describing it as ‘daft’ or ‘wank’, probably says it all about the future of this country.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

That said, I did find a few issues.  This house doesn’t have the best sightlines and having the singers so far back will surely have limited the view for many.  Additionally, the set (Rainer Sellmaier) consisted of several rooms within a larger structure, which I’m also not convinced would be visible from many of the seats.  I’m also not quite sure the French revolutionaries would have celebrated the king’s birthday as a reason for letting the prisoners out.  Still, what Kratzer gives us is a moving and thought-provoking Fidelio for our times.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

His Leonore was Lise Davidsen.  Having seen Davidsen a few times now, I have always left with the impression of a singer of great natural gifts but technically unfinished.  I was delighted to see tonight that Davidsen is growing into the voice and into her stage presence.  Indeed, in the Ariadne in Aix-en-Provence, she was a rather blank actress but here, working with Kratzer, there was an earthy positivity to her stage presence that was utterly winning.  Vocally, the voice takes flight over the orchestra quite gloriously, spinning long lines of silvery tone in her big number.  Occasionally intonation had a tendency to sink – but less so than on previous occasions – and the registers aren’t always integrated.  The very top also lacks body and colour and doesn’t quite spin.  But these are things that Davidsen is clearly working on, and it was genuinely uplifting to see the progress she has made as a technician and interpreter.  I’m looking forward with eagerness to see her development over the next decade.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

Amanda Forsythe sang a bright and crystalline Marzelline.  She delivered the dialogue with confidence.  Hers isn’t the largest voice to have essayed this music, and there was a tendency to shallowness in the tone higher up, but the elegance of her vocalism and the honesty of the performance, that heartbreak palpable as she realized the truth about Fidelio through her acting, was deeply moving.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

Jonas Kaufmann was apparently unwell at the premiere a few days ago and didn’t sound like he had fully recovered.  The voice sounded small from my seat towards the front, seemingly barely imposing itself beyond the footlights.  His ‘Gott!’ started from falsetto and grew in volume as he held on to it interminably.   His big aria seemed to emerge through sheer willpower, the tone tight and throaty.  Clearly, his fans were undeterred with a lady in the front row tossing off a bouquet of roses in his direction – I did wonder if she also hid her brassière inside of it.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

Georg Zeppenfeld sang an eloquent Rocco in a full and resonant bass.  Michael Kupfer-Radecky, a late replacement for an indisposed Simon Neal, had clearly mastered the staging and new dialogue as Pizzaro.  His baritone was rather dry and compact for the role, but he clearly deserves our admiration for fully integrating himself into a new and complex staging.  Robin Tritschler brought a sandy tenor and clarity of diction to Jaquino.  Egils Siliņš was a big voiced Fernando – indeed, I did wonder if he might have been more optimal casting for Pizarro.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

Antonio Pappano led a relatively brisk reading, though one that felt that it remained on the surface, not always delving into and bringing out detail.  He was also an extremely noisy presence on the podium, constantly huffing and puffing, which became tiresome and drew attention from the principals.  The strings were unfortunately not unanimous in tuning – intonation was constantly sour.  Frankly, for a house that wants to consider itself world class this wasn’t good enough.  The all-important horns also had disagreements over their entries, with so many ragged entries over the course of the evening.  Fortunately, Davidsen’s singing was so compelling that I only heard them split once in her big scene.  The enthusiastic chorus seems to have consolidated the improvements they have made under William Spaulding.  The gentlemen, in particular, singing with discipline in the prisoners’ chorus.  The ladies vibrated generously in the final scene, to the extent that it wasn’t always possible to discern the pitch they were aiming for.

Kratzer has given us a compelling new staging, one that makes us ask ourselves what we would do if confronted with horror – would we stand by or would we get involved?  The way that the people joined in with Leonore’s jubilation, riding on her coattails, draping her in the flag and making her a reluctant hero, while all the time they stood by and watched when they could have helped, felt so pertinent and timely.  Musically, there was much that was positive with Davidsen really growing into the promise that she has shown, and Forsythe and Zeppenfeld singing and acting with eloquence and intelligence.  The audience gave the cast a positive reception with massive cheers for Davidsen.

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4 comments

  1. Forsythe is a great singer, particularly as a baroque singer in boston. It’s great to see her getting high profile engagements internationally.

  2. I did contemplate briefly flying to London for this production, but ultimately decided that, much as I like Fidelio, it’s not an opera that I could spend thousands on (I’ll be going later this year for Don Carlo). But, I will buy the DVD (if one is launched) and was quite curious about the production anyway (this being the Beethoven year and all that). I enjoyed your review, which I found much better than the traditional reviews in the London newspapers.

  3. A complete travesty of Beethoven’s opera. Kratzer should have stuck with the 1814 production set in 17th century Spain, the misch mash was dire even with Kaufmann et al thrown in. The dialogue was a real Horlicks, the dungeon scene was nothing of the kind, an appalling production of a great opera.

    • Monsieur, on that you and I will disagree. Kratzer made the work truly revolutionary, in a way that surely Beethoven would have admired, forcing us to confront ourselves and what freedom means to us. Which, given your reaction, appears to be not very much

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