Impossible Escape: Fidelio from the Theater an der Wien

Beethoven – Fidelio

Leonore – Nicole Chevalier
Florestan – Eric Cutler
Rocco – Christof Fischesser
Marzelline – Mélissa Petit
Jaquino – Benjamin Hulett
Don Pizarro – Gábor Bretz
Don Fernando – Károly Szemerédy
Zwei Gefangene – Johannes Bamberger, Dumitru Mădăraşăn

Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Wiener Symphoniker / Manfred Honeck.
Stage director – Christoph Waltz.  Video director – Felix Breisach

Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.  Streamed via

At a time when virtually all lyric theatres are closed, the only way for us to get our operatic fix is through the multitude of streaming services available.  Until theatres reopen, this website will continue to cover interesting and stimulating performances throughout the operatic world.  Of course, streaming is no substitute for the glory of experiencing the unamplified human voice in the flesh, nor does it give a full impression of the staging, invited as we are to see through the eyes of the TV director.  That said, this is all we have right now and for that we must be exceptionally grateful

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

I start with these thoughts because it struck me that the set for Christoph Waltz’s Fidelio at the Theater an der Wien, by architectural bureau Barkow-Leibinger, must have been a staggering sight in the house.  The set consists of a huge structure, taking over the height of the entire proscenium, consisting of stairways inverting themselves as the set rises, with characters descending from the middle of the structure to the foot, where the action takes place.  The exception to this was the prisoners’ chorus where the prisoners were brought up from below.  A large circle above suggests a way for characters to enter, as well as providing a sight of freedom beyond, but nobody seems able to reach it.  Felix Breisach and his team do a good job of capturing the visuals and their impact, the camera work feeling natural, and fortunately without extraneous shots of the pit bringing us out of the narrative.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

At a time, when so many of us are imprisoned in our own homes in fear of something that cannot be seen, yet for which the effects are catastrophic, Waltz’s staging seems to be very much of the moment. This is a work about freedom against tyranny, of conjugal love, and the brief respite of sunlight.  Yet in Waltz’s world, we see characters who exist in a world in which there is no escape.  Interestingly, as Leonore and Florestan are reunited, they don’t even touch, divided by the steps, even in the jubilant final chorus they are lost from each other, destined to circulate forever with others, imprisoned in this mysterious structure from which escape is visible yet unachievable.  I found it a fascinating idea, though inevitably the sense of catharsis, of happy ever after, is denied to us.  Again, this is simply a reflection of the times in which we find ourselves, and Waltz and his cast have given us a piece of theatre that provokes reflection.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

That isn’t to say that his world isn’t made up of flesh and blood characters – these are clearly individuals who engage with each other to a certain respect, even if in others they seem locked into self-isolation.  Especially as the production uses the 1806 version of the work, which includes an interesting trio between Rocco, Marzelline and Jaquino that puts their relationship into context.  While of course, it’s interesting to hear Beethoven’s earlier thoughts on the work (having previously heard and discussed them in a concert performance given by René Jacobs in Amsterdam in 2017), I still feel that the tighter musical argument of Beethoven’s final thoughts is preferable, even if we do lose something of the character development of the supporting characters.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Musically it was very strong, especially from the gentlemen.  In this version Eric Cutler’s Florestan has less to do than in the later version but he sang Florestan’s music with bright, clarion tone and ease on high.  He dispatched the text with warmth and feeling, digging deep to find meaning.  His ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier?’ sung with urgent questioning, finding a lieder singer’s shading of the text.  Christof Fischesser sang Rocco with a big, warm and resonant bass.  The voice is in fabulous shape and his native diction gave much pleasure.  Gábor Bretz was a superb Pizarro – no barking here, but a voice up to the challenges of the role, even from top to bottom, and impressive resonance.  Benjamin Hulett gave us a Jaquino sung in a characterful tenor, again with excellent diction, bringing out the simmering anger under the surface, making his character seem a lot more threatening than we often see.  Károly Szemerédy gave us a grainy Fernando.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Mélissa Petit is the owner of a charming soprano as Marzelline.  The middle is warm and generous and the top has a crystalline beauty.  Her diction didn’t sound as clear as it could have been which robbed her singing of its full impact but it’s certainly an interesting voice.  Nicole Chevalier gave us a compelling Leonore.  Her stage presence was haunting, her face so communicative, giving the impression of someone who had seen much and had been marked by trauma.  She gave generously of herself vocally, in her big scene singing with generosity, yet with pitch going astray as a result, magnified by the immediacy of the streaming in a way that might not have been so noticeable in the theatre.  This version has seemingly endless lines, which Chevalier dispatched with impressive breath control.  Certainly, a notable assumption of the role and one I would very much appreciate having the chance to hear in the theatre.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The Arnold Schoenberg Chor sang with their customary freshness of tone and excellent ensemble, with two mellifluous soloists in Johannes Bamberger and Dumitru Mădăraşăn.  Manfred Honeck led the Wiener Symphoniker in an efficient reading.  His conducting worked well in swifter tempi where he showed an awareness of the importance of a strong rhythmic foundation.  In the slower sections there was a tendency for tension to drop, however.  The strings played with full vibrato, providing a thick carpet of sound, but the winds were full of personality.  The horns were exceptionally well behaved in Leonore’s big scene.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This is a Fidelio for our troubled times.  A world in which lovers are unable to touch, in which we are unable to escape from the prison in which we find ourselves.  We owe the Theater an der Wien and the cast an immense debt of gratitude for giving us the opportunity to see this cast and production following its cancellation.  Once the curtain came down, it rose again to show the entire cast, orchestra and technical crew on stage.  There was a great sense of pathos to see them on stage without an audience to applaud them.  Yet the fact that this fine production has been made available to a wider public is at least one reason to celebrate in these bleak times.

During this period of theatre closures, earnings from both the Patreon community and paypal will be donated to musical and environmental charities.

One comment

  1. I also found lots to enjoy about this broadcast and your review covers it well. But I found the lighting hopeless. Practically the whole thing looks like it was lit with a single candle somewhere in the wings. I agree that it might have looked quite different in the theater, but by the time this was filmed, the creative team knew it was being made for the screen and should have had in mind how it would look in that format. For me, the experience was basically the same as listening to a CD. For long passages, there was nothing but a black screen to watch. A visual disaster.

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