Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Beethoven - Fidelio

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Palau de les Arts 'Reina Sofia', Valencia, 2007

Zubin Mehta, Pier' Alli, Waltraud Meier, Matti Salminen, Juha Uusitalo, Peter Seiffert, Ildikó Raimondi, Rainer Trost, Carsten Stabell, Javier Agulló, Nahuel di Pierro

Sky Arts TV

Revised twice after its first performance as Leonore in 1805 and taking its final form as Fidelio in 1814, Beethoven's only opera is a beautiful testament to humanity, its capacity to love and ability to endure and thrive even in the direst of circumstances. Pier' Alli's direction, set and projections for the 2007 production of the work at the Palau de les Arts 'Reina Sofia' in Valencia is largely period, literal and doesn't attempt anything too adventurous, but it accompanies the sentiments of the work perfectly, as does conductor Zubin Mehta, taking the orchestra through a grand and very moving account of the score that Beethoven laboured over for so many years.

Pier' Alli's direction is quite literal in the sets and their depiction of the 18th century Seville prison and dungeons where the entire work takes place. It's dark, the lighting is sombre, imposing high doors shut off any indication of the world outside and spikes, chains and instruments of torture (emphasised in the projections at the start of Act II) testify to the horrors of the State Prison under the command of Don Pizarro, the governor of the jail. Yet even within such a place, love, hope and more noble sentiments still exist in Jaquino's unrequited love for Marzelline, in Marzelline's love for Fidelio, the young man who has earned the trust and admiration of her father the jailor, Rocco. Fidelio is actually Leonore in disguise, the most faithful of all, hoping to find out if her husband Florestan is imprisoned there and do what she can to help him escape.

The direction doesn't really need to do much to emphasise the brightness in the darkness, and you're not going to notice this anyway when everything that is needed to describe this situation is there in Beethoven's magnificent score, in the stirring sentiments of the libretto and expressed so well in the singing voices. The music is as beautiful, noble and warm as Mozart, ennobled further perhaps through the recognition of the darkness in which the finer spirit of mankind endures. That darker side is more evident when Marzelline's hopes for marriage are put aside (but not discounted) in the later scenes of the first Act and in the early part of the second, as Pizarro plots to dispose of the prisoner he is secretly holding in the deepest dungeon. Its most beautiful expression is there in the scene where the other prisoners take hope in the rare glimpse of light on their walk in the courtyard and express their belief that "We shall be free, we shall find peace".

The light is never snuffed out, no matter how bleak it gets and hope, faith and belief in the supremacy of goodness endures in the hearts of the characters of Fidelio. And no more so than in Leonore/Fidelio. The casting for this production gives us such great singers as Waltraud Meier in the title role and Matti Salminen as Rocco. One could question whether their voices - more Wagnerian than Mozartian - are really right for Beethoven, but it's interesting casting. Neither unfortunately are at their peak here, but their abilities, experience and personality contributes enormously to the overall power of the production. For similar reasons, I wasn't particularly keen on Peter Seiffert's singing as Florestan, nor do I think he carries the role well either. The use of the more Mozartian voices of Ildikó Raimondi and Rainer Trost to express the youthful idealism of Marzelline and Jaquino provides good contrast however and they complement well with the Wagnerians, particularly in the outstanding ensemble finale to Act I.

It's a testament to the production and the rich voices of Meier, Salminen, Uusitalo and Seiffert that Fidelio's themes come through even more strongly in the greater bleakness of the Second Act. Pier' Alli's depiction of the deep dungeon that holds Florestan is superb, a projection of images of spikes and chains taking us down there, and a clever mix of real sets and projected staircases (with virtual prison guards?) creating a truly bleak picture of Florestan's predicament. Beethoven's score rises above it all however, and Zubin Mehta is unable to resist including the third Overture from Leonore as a beautiful moment of contemplation before the finale. It's an imperfect solution to the hurried ending in Beethoven's revised version of the opera, but it rounds out an overall very fine performance of this great work.