Fidelio is a serious opera. Beethoven made his intentions clear when he described Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Figaro as ‘frivolous’, even ‘scandalous’ – despite his admiration for the composer’s music. Yet the first of Fidelio’s two acts is a comic melodrama with love, both jealous and playful, taking much of its seventy five minutes. It is only in the second act that the full sweep of Beethoven’s intellectual and political ambitions for his only opera become obvious.
‘Egalite, Liberte, Fraternite’ in a headline banner and the iconic red and white and blue flag situates this production (originally set in Spain) during the French Revolution of 1789 and the follow-up of bloody repression and execution. Fidelio, masquerading as a prison guard, is in fact Leonore, the wife of a political prisoner whom she hopes to save from torture and death. She is in the line of heroic women in France who came to represent freedom across the globe and as far as the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York.
The casting for the role is perfect. Lise Davidsen, the Norwegian soprano is young and strong enough to be taken as a man, although to the audience attractively feminine. More important, her superb voice has an emotional vibrancy which suggests anguished love combined with iron determination. There is no note too long but that she can hold it with seeming effortless composure. In every aria and the early quartet she is outstanding. The only drawback to her supremacy is that the voice of Amanda Forsythe, playing Marzelline, the gaoler’s daughter who falls in love with Fidelio, by contrast seems under par.
The men, in this first act have less of a problem, In particular Georg Zeppenfeld singing the role of the gaoler, Rocco, holds the stage. Robin Tritschiler as Marcelline’s discarded lover, Jacqino, also sings gracefully in a somewhat thankless role. The entry of the villain, Don Pizarro, sung by Simon Neal, lifts the level to a higher intensity, in proper preparation for the second act.
Fidelio has always been recognised as a difficult play to stage successfully. Beethoven, himself dissatisfied, produced three different versions over the years, finally finding popularity with the last. Most of his admirers whether they’ve seen the opera once or many times would agree that the second act builds to a fantastic climactic end when all the prisoners are freed from the darkness of the dungeons into the bright light of freedom. For this heart-wrenching musical drama to be achieved two things are needed: a great singer playing the role of Florestan, Fidelio’s husband who, already near death in his cell, is threatened with murder, and a glorious break-out by a terrific chorus of prisoners in full throated celebration. Unfortunately the great tenor, Jonas Kauffman who was to play the role was unwell the evening that I saw Fidelio. In fact, his replacement English tenor, David Butt Philip who has sung regularly for the ENO, took over the part with great confidence and sang the famous prison aria, ‘What endless night/ What grim foreboding silence’ with true emotional depth. When Fidelio/ Leonore finds him on the floor of his cells their voices work well together.
However in this act, director Tobias Kratzer has decided to remove the drama from the historic past into a symbolic present. Thus the prisoner chorus become watchful men and women, obviously prosperous in their smart suits and dresses. This is a reasonable comment on society’s habit of watching evil without taking action against it. But when the ‘Minister’ (Egil Silins) appears and Florestan and all his fellow prisoners are released. there is no way to produce the powerful ending so needed by the drama. Instead of celebrating justice, love and courage, the suited chorus step forward, reminding me, if they had any resonance, of a gathering of well-heeled E U bureaucrats in Brussels.
Nevertheless, Beethoven’s music, conducted by the matchless Antonio Pappano, and Lise Davidsen’s superb singing makes this an evening that will echo gloriously in the memory.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: Tobias Kratzer