Fidelio at the Royal Opera House, London5:20, 1st April 2020
Reviewed by Helena Matheopoulos
Beethoven’s only opera was programmed as the ROH’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The only misgiving among those in the know concerned the choice of director, Tobias Kratzer, whose controversial production of Tannhäuser at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival was not a reassuring omen…
In the event, the misgivings were justified. Despite the totally gripping, feverish intensity of Antonio Pappano’s unforgettable conducting and the committed, mostly vocally resplendent performances by the protagonists and the rest of the cast, something about the evening felt slightly flat. And yes, the blame lay at the feet of the director.
To be fair, all was well in Act I. The plot is set not in the Spain of Beethoven’s original, but in Robespierre’s revolutionary France. It looks good and is scenically convincing. The jail and Rocco’s quarters – with adjoining bedroom for future use by Marzelline in a blatant but futile attempt to seduce Fidelio (the disguised Leonore) – are realistic enough. In an inspired, dramatically significant detail, Fidelio buys and keeps a canary.
Georg Zeppenfeld as Rocco delivered a well sung, dramatically nuanced and at times almost soft-hearted portrayal, obviously well directed by Kratzer. So was Amanda Forsythe’s silvery-voiced Marzelline, whose role is remarkably enhanced in this staging, delivering a spirited, pluckier than usual portrayal and proving instrumental in bringing about the final denouement – a significant departure from the libretto!
Pizarro, who enters on a real horse, is portrayed as more sadistically brutal than ever and Simon Neal delivered a spine-chillingly terrifying portrayal (I would have preferred a darker bass baritone voice to match the villainy, however). He cold-bloodedly crushes Marzelline’s canary and throws it to the floor like a piece of rubbish, thereby turning her into his future nemesis. (The moment when she lovingly picks up and cradles its tiny body was among the most heart-rending I have ever witnessed on stage.) As Jaquino, a more vivid presence than usual in this staging, Robin Tritschler rose to the challenge, sang the part beautifully and delivered a strong, touching portrayal.
Lise Davidsen, tall enough to be convincing as a boy, was an overwhelmingly thrilling Leonore from start to finish. The moment she opened up her huge, radiant voice which filled the theatre with resounding sound that bounced back with a vengeance, she reminded one, as I heard someone in a neighbouring seat whisper, that ‘this is what opera is all about!’
Act II is where the problems set in. The original libretto had been ‘revised’ by Stephan von Breuning (in 1806) and Friedrich Treitschke (in 1814) to include arguments about the meaning of revolution. Kratzer decided to treat the whole act as a finger-pointing, didactic treatise on our apathy in the face of injustice. The curtain opened onto a stage filled with the chorus in contemporary costumes seated in three rows forming a semi-circle at the back of the stage, observing Florestan chained on a pile of rubble in a confinement which here is anything but solitary. This ‘public’, some of whom are pinpointed in back projections, are initially aware of but indifferent to his suffering. Gradually, some become more engaged as they are faced with the prisoner’s wretched treatment.
Jonas Kaufmann, who on occasion had to sing his vocally challenging music from very awkward positions, acquitted himself with distinction, despite the announcement that he was unwell. The warm, glorious voice opened up at the top beautifully in his first aria and he proceeded to deliver a noble portrayal. Where, in the circumstances, the voice sounded a little under the weather towards the end, it made dramatic sense. For the whole scene, leading up to his liberation, he is surrounded by a gratuitous hullaballoo of people, crowds and individuals encircling him in quick succession.
More’s the pity, since Kratzer’s directing of the characters was perceptive and effective. Though he is capable of a sensitive psychological approach to the characters and their interactions, he shoots himself in the foot by trying to impose a personal agenda on a work that is resonant with its own meaning. How much more moving it would have been to see in Act II a skeletal Florestan isolated and hallucinating in a dark dungeon than in this mayhem in broad daylight!
I have huge respect and admiration for the director’s role in opera. But this was the result of Regietheater torpedoing rather than enhancing a vocally and musically glorious evening.