Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio
Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2014
Daniel Barenboim, Deborah Warner, Klaus Florian Vogt, Anja Kampe, Peter Mattei, Falk Struckmann, Mojca Erdmann, Kwangchul Youn, Florian Hoffmann
ARTE Concert - 7 December 2014
The choice of Beethoven's only opera Fidelio for the La Scala's 2014 showcase opening night production was, as it often is in Milan, as much a political statement as a musical one. While the anti-austerity protests took place outside and the ever-looming threat of cuts to arts funding continues to hang over the famous theatre, there were times when you got the impression that the trouble had spilled over into the theatre. Thankfully however, it wasn't the loutish bad behaviour of the logginisti this year - they were kept very happy indeed by a magnificent account of the work conducted by Daniel Barenboim in his valedictory performances for the house - but on the stage itself in Deborah Warner's production.
Beethoven's Fidelio itself doesn't make a political statement as such. It's more interested in basic human moral questions, but as generalised as the politics of the libretto are, the moral questions can't be entirely removed from the revolutionary age in which the work was written. If there's one area where Deborah Warner's production brings out the meaning and significance of Fidelio - and it is possibly the only worthwhile and discernible point about the stage concept - it's that it helps distinguish the class and social order that is an important aspect of the work, and one that too often gets lost in the lack of specificity and in the generic period setting of some productions. It's not that Fidelio is about class as much as it represents and exalts the capacity of human nature to show decency, love and respect for others - even in the face of tyranny - by relating it to the degree to which people place their faith in the most basic human values such as love, compassion and freedom.
If you didn't know that Fidelio was set in a state prison outside Seville, you would think that Deborah Warner's production takes place below an underpass at the back of a factory or a homeless shelter. There's a small office-booth and a table to take care of practicalities, but the dress of Rocco and his Marzelline is rather more casual than you would expect for a prison jailer and his daughter. The costumes appear to be significant, Rocco's assistant Fidelio looking like a binman, Don Pizarro, the Governor (or Guv'nor) wearing an ill-fitting suit that marks him out as a step above, albeit somewhat let down by the rather faded polo-shirt he wears underneath it. The Minister Don Fernando, when he arrives late in the day, is rather more smartly dressed in a shirt and a tie.
The prisoners themselves are all very much working class, Warner going as far as showing many of them wearing hard-hats, but there are lower orders still. In the deepest pit of the darkest dungeon is Florestan, a political prisoner of conscience, a 'desaparecido', cut off from the world because of his dangerous views on freedom, starved almost to death, his life about to be extinguished forever on the orders of Don Pizarro, who is holding him there illegally. Someone however hasn't given up hope. Florestan's wife Leonore, disguised as the prison jailor's assistant Fidelio believes her husband is still alive and hopes to rescue him by securing the confidence of Rocco, even going so far as to become 'engaged' to his daughter Marzelline.
And that's what is important about Fidelio. It's not class, it's not politics, it's hope. It's faith and belief (which is perhaps why Beethoven settled on the title Fidelio in the revised work rather than the original Leonore), of refusing to believe that the better nature of man can be completely extinguished. The same spirit can be found to differing degrees in Marzelline and Jaquino, in Rocco's act of kindness towards the political prisoners, allowing them to see the light of day in that stirring scene ('O welche Lust, in freier Luft'). It's significant that this concession is made on the occasion of the king's birthday, the degree to which freedom is granted or demanded dependent upon how much one defers one's freedoms to higher powers. Those who have to fight for their freedom with their lives inevitably have a greater sense of what true liberty means, but not exclusively. Clemency on the part of the 'nobility' (Don Fernando wears a tie but he also has a loose jacket) is also recognised for the greater good it can achieve.
If you didn't know all that was there in Fidelio - and even as it recognises these characteristics Warner's often confusing production isn't the most enlightening - you could tell it from the music alone, and in this production you can hear it in the singing as well. Recognising that Fidelio looks ahead even as it rests on the foundations of the old model of German opera, Barenboim conducts with an anticipatory eye on where Fidelio is to have influence later, giving Wagnerian force and character to the nobility and lyricism of Mozart. The casting for Fidelio is also typically Wagnerian, but this production finds that there are certain types of Wagnerian voices that suit Beethoven's opera better than others. Chiefly, this can be heard in the beautiful lyricism of Klaus Florian Vogt's Florestan. His voice is first heard ringing out from the darkness of Act II and his 'In des Lebens Frühlingstagen' aria really does suggest a pure spirit undefeated, his faith keeping him alive. I don't think I've seen or heard Vogt perform better than he does here.
Just as impressive is Anja Kampe's soaring Leonore. In her we get not just Leonore's anguish and fear for the fate of her husband, but her strength, determination and the beauty of her spirit in the lyrical flights of her singing. Strength and lyricism is there elsewhere towards different ends in Kwangchul Youn's Rocco and in Peter Mattei's Don Pizarro. Mojca Erdmann's and Florian Hoffmann bring out the brighter, youthful nature of Marzelline and Jaquino, while Falk Struckmann's Don Fernando is firm of purpose, directing the work towards its uplifting conclusion. Perfect casting all around in other words, each role bringing out the beauty and character of Beethoven's writing for the value it adds to the dramatic purpose of the opera. Whether there was recognition for Deborah Warner's contribution to how those characters are defined is hard to say, but on every other level the impact of the work clearly carried across to the audience on the night as much as Daniel Barenboim's significant part in it all.
Links: ARTE Concert, Teatro alla Scala