Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, was written and edited over a period of nine years. The entire opera takes place within the walls of a prison, where Florestan is being illegally held. His wife, Leonore, disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, and manages to get a job assisting the gaoler, Rocco, in order to save her husband.
The opera begins with the curtain up, allowing the audience to take in the Perspex labyrinth that is used to symbolise the prison throughout. The set is well suited to the nature of the opera, and is integral to the production concept of claustrophobia, however at times it does seem a little too much with neon lights and strange lighting effects (that prompted a comment from behind me of ‘is it going to take off?’). The front half of it is static and tips backwards in the second act so that the floors become walls, while the back half shifts slowly backward and forward. Instead of beginning with the overture, Leonore first gives a short monologue that is not in the original libretto or completed score. Following this is not the overture used in the final version of Fidelio, but rather the Leonore Overture no.3 from the 1806 version of the opera. During this, members of the cast climb over the maze-like structure while Leonore binds her breasts. The concept of this opening scene is apt in conveying the feeling that everyone is imprisoned in some way, however it is not captivating or busy enough to fill 14 minutes of overture.
Leonore’s Overture no. 3 traditionally occupied a space between two scenes in the second act, however in this production the ‘Molto Adagio’ from Beethoven’sString Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 is substituted and performed by players lowered into space above the stage in metal cages. While the performance by the Heath Quartet was stunning, it is a little long and adds heaviness in quite an odd place – the married couple have just been reunited. The effect is powerful at first but soon wears off.
The production has several confusing moments, perhaps an attempt at reaching for some deeper symbolism, that serve to baffle the audience. A few of these moments include Leonore wandering through the crowd of prisoners attaching mugshots to their clothes, the choice of costume for Don Fernando (who is dressed as an 18th century courtier while the rest of the cast are dressed in modern suits), and a gunshot that for a moment seems as though Don Fernando has killed Florestan. These moments, to name a few, seemed horrendously contrived as opposed to highlighting some innate symbolic ideas held in the opera.
The cast includes some wonderful singers with Emma Bell (Leonore) and Stuart Skelton (Florestan) being particularly memorable. The trio with James Creswell (Rocco), Sarah Tynan (Marzelline) and Emma Bell is beautifully balanced. However, throughout the opera there were many points at which orchestra and singers were definitely not together, and a few moments where the orchestra was not together either. Philip Horst, playing the role of Don Pizarro, is not overly convincing, at times proving difficult to hear. Beethoven’s vocal lines are notoriously tricky for singers, highly demanding from a technical point of view, but cause no problems for the cast.
Overall, I would not recommend this production of Fidelio. The translation chosen, by David Pountney, is terrible. In fact, if someone were to see this production without first knowing the story then I doubt that they would understand much at all. The music itself almost transcends the major flaws in this production but some are so jolting as to entirely ruin the experience. The style of Calixto Bieito seems too contrived for this opera, and rather than complimenting the original libretto, it seems to superimpose itself onto the opera, at times obscuring it too far. The audience were loud in their applause for the singers, orchestra and conductor, however there were several calls of ‘rubbish’ accompanied by boos and hisses as the production team came on stage to take a bow.