Fidelio has never really worked as an opera, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. That it’s still on the fringe of the standard operatic canon is due mostly to the now august reputation of its composer—one that has been built in symphonic or rather symphonic-like music—and the fame of the notoriously difficult tenor aria that begins Act II (“Gott, welch Dunkel hier!”). Premiered in 1805, again in 1806, and finally, in 1814 to varying levels of enthusiasm (ranging from poor to lukewarm and finally to rapturous), Fidelio’s music is unquestionably unique: it is at times atmospheric, colorful, powerful as only Beethoven’s music can be, and fully charged with emotion whilst at other times decidedly bland, though even at its worst never descends into that most feared category of operatic music, “boring.”
The opera’s plot, however, is weak when viewed through our modern lens: a rescue opera about a man who is eventually rescued by his wife but doesn’t appear at all in the first act and two completely irrelevant characters that exist for the sake of the genre’s form (originally opèra comique) make for an work that, whilst certainly academic gold doesn’t really excel as compelling contemporary theatre. Of course there are countless operas with lesser music that have equally unbelievable plots (those still living in the past, when German music dominated the academic music world, would wrongly point to Il Trovatore), and rely on modern productions to tease out hitherto unrealized dramatic juxtapositions or cultural references.
This (de)construction is exactly what Calixto Bieito’s new production (debuting at English National Opera but shared with the Bavarian State Opera) attempts to do: redress an old work that many hold dear to their hearts as something bold, cutting-edge and new. Prisons, both literal and metaphorical, are central to the design and execution of Bieito’s production. All the characters had a prison attached to their existence in some way: Pizzaro was trapped by his cutting habit (a clever addition no doubt sparked by his “evil” emotions; Leonora by her love and gender swap; and Florestan by his helplessness.
Rebecca Ringst’s stark but adaptable sets frame the action, and whilst reminiscent of prisons, reminded me more of the mazes lab rats are forced to run around in any parody of scientific experiments. Whatever the case, it worked rather well, especially with the adventurous lighting by Tim Mitchell. Unlike Bieito’s production of Carmen(seen here last year), there were some questionable moments for each of the characters when moving; the motivation to do so wasn’t always clear. On the other hand, unlike his Carmen, the singing was really something else.
Emma Bell sang a superb Leonore: her top notes blossom with warmth and clarity, but occasionally her diction was lost amidst this voluminous sound. James Creswell was a heartfelt Rocco meandering towards legato, and he eventually got there, however occasionally uncomfortable he seemed with his blocking. As Florestan, Stuart Skelton was impressive: from the opening note and his triple pianissimo to the final scene and his excellent duet with Bell (“O namenlose Freude”), Skelton really owned the stage. His presence, physically and vocally, is larger than life.
The insertion of the Heath Quartet was also a very nice touch; there are no other words that can describe their collective sound other than penetrating and poignant. Edward Gardner conducted a well versed orchestra (in this production opening with Leonora No. 3); it would have been nice to have a better range of dynamics at times, especially in the chorus scenes, but the overall boldness with which Gardner approached the score was well taken.
It was a strong opening to the season for ENO and a subtle creep forward in the canon for Fidelio, in no small part because of Bieito.
Photos: English National Opera