Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Beethoven - Fidelio

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2014

Paolo Arrivabeni, Mario Martone, Jennifer Wilson, Zoran Todorovich, Franz Hawlata, Cinzia Forte, Yuri Gorodetski, Thomas Gazheli, Laurent Kubla, Xavier Petithan, Alexei Gorbatchev Internet Streaming - 6th February 2014

Judging from the critical response to a few extravagant recent productions in the UK, the themes and sentiments of Beethoven's only opera has the ability to endure even the most ill-fitting concepts and settings. There's certainly nothing quite as radical attempted in the Opéra Royal de Wallonie's production of Fidelio in Liège. Under the stage direction of Mario Martone, it's a fairly traditional presentation in the main that plays to the strengths of the work. As a consequence, the uninspired and uninspiring Liège production never really engages in a way that brings anything new out of the work either, but Fidelio still endures.

Sergio Tramonti's set designs for the Liège production are fairly basic but at least functional and appropriate for the content and for the purposes of the stage direction. Act I shows a rather grimy prison courtyard with a little hut where the rather dishevelled and dusty warder Rocco and his daughter Marzelline reside. It's a grey and dark place, with a platform of iron scaffolding above and prison gates recessed to the back of the dimly-lit stage. Act II makes more appropriate use of this scaffolding as a means to descend to the deep prison cell where Florestan is being held in chains. Darkness pervades, but as such it's perfectly in keeping with both the literal depiction of the conditions of the 18th century prison near Seville and with the dominant tone of Beethoven's subject.

In Fidelio, and certainly in this production of it, it's definitely a case of painting the picture darker to show that the faint light of human aspirations for truth, justice and liberty can never be entirely extinguished, but rather shine even brighter in what even appear to be the most hopeless of situations. And Fidelio does get pretty bleak. Florestan, a political prisoner, is being held secretly in solitary confinement in the deepest darkest vaults of the prison, never seeing the light of day, being starved to death on the orders of the governor Don Pizarro. Afraid however of Florestan's illegal imprisonment being discovered by the Minister on a sudden inspection visit, Pizarro orders Rocco to murder the prisoner, dig a hole and bury him down there.

It's a very grim subject, but Beethoven's score - worked on laboriously for nine years over several versions and multiple revisions - bears the nobility of the finer qualities of both Florestan and his wife Leonore (in disguise as Rocco's assistant Fidelio, unable to determine even if her husband is still alive, so deep is his light buried), at the same time as it depicts the nature of the darkness that they face. The libretto is littered with references to darkness and light, but Beethoven's score manages to show both sides of the coin at the same time, and not just in the central situation, but also within the smaller-scale drama of the prison warder's daughter Marzelline's love for Fidelio putting paid to her admirer Jaquino's ambitions to marry her.

The Liège production captures the tone of the work reasonably well, but only in the broadest of terms in its distinction between darkness and light. The darkness is well-established in the First Act and the beginning of the Second Act, with only the prisoner's tentative and cautious glimpse of daylight in the chorus of 'O welche Lust' at the end of Act I offering any respite from the gloom. When that brightness cascades onto the set at the arrival of the Minister then, pouring in from the lifting of the walls at the back of the stage, it achieves perfectly the sense of liberation and hope that Leonore's unwavering faith inspires. Broadly, that's fine, but it means that a considerable amount then rests also on the singers to capture the nuance of characterisation that is played out here in the most Manichean of terms.

The singers perform reasonably well, but by no means exceptionally, only really succeeding in matching the level of the production. The nobility of Leonore calls for a strong Wagnerian soprano and Jennifer Wilson meets those requirements with a pure timbre that rings out with courage and dignity. She's not best matched with tenor Zoran Todorovich's Florestan, and doesn't always hold those Mozartian flourishes steady, but it's a good performance. Todorovich isn't quite the heldentenor voice that would be ideal for Florestan and he too has shaky moments, but he makes the right impression. Franz Hawlata's Rocco is solid and clear of diction and there are notable performances from Cinzia Forte as Marzelline and Yuri Gorodetski as Jaquino. Thomas Gazheli's Don Pizarro is sung well but a little over-played with sneers and mannerisms as a caricature baddie.

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's production of Fidelio - a co-production with the Teatro Regio de Turin - was broadcast live from Liège on the 6th February 2014. At the time of writing it's still available for free viewing from the, in German with French subtitles only.