Thursday, 3 December 2015

Beethoven - Fidelio (Salzburg, 2015 - Webcast)

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Salzburger Festspiele, 2015

Franz Welser-Möst, Claus Guth, Jonas Kaufmann, Adrianne Pieczonka, Sebastian Holecek, Tomasz Konieczny, Hans-Peter König, Olga Bezsmertna, Norbert Ernst, Paul Lorenger, Nadia Kichler - August 2015 

The 2015 Salzburg Festival production of Fidelio finds a way to bring out and emphasise the beauty of Beethoven's musical compositions for the opera, but it does so rather drastically by cutting all the spoken dialogue sections. This is a risky strategy since the work has a very important message on life, liberty and love that is contained within its drama just as much as in the music. Or does it? Is it not Beethoven's music that really carries the depths of the sentiments far above the rescue opera nature of the drama? The Salzburg production seems to confirm the impression that it's the music that takes precedence over the drama, but evidently the music and drama are intertwined and to such an extent in Fidelio that deconstruction of its elements might not really serve any valuable purpose.

Salzburg have a bit of a history with reworking familiar operas to see if a fresh approach can reveal new facets of the work. And not just in the expected manner of bringing in a director who can radically reinterpret the work. Salzburg aren't afraid to take an adventurous approach with the music and the structure of familiar works as well, such as Christian Thielemann's revelatory pared-down arrangement of Parsifal and the less successful attempt to reinstate a version of Molière's 'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme' alongside Strauss's abandoned first version of Ariadne auf Naxos. In the case of Salzburg's Fidelio, the right director is also needed to compensate for the stripping away of the spoken dialogue, and the feeling seems to be that along with Beethoven's music, Claus Guth's probing psychological dissection of the work can be enough to get the essence of the work across, and perhaps even bring something more out of it. That's a bit of a gamble...

Musically at least, Fidelio appears to be in safe hands with Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic. More than safe, the work seems to just glow with all the splendour of one of the finest works of the Classical period played by one of the best orchestras in the world. The sweep of the drama is all there, along with sensitivity for the sentiments and attention to the sophistication of the human message in the arrangements - one of the strongest expressions of the beauty and resilience of humanity outside of Mozart. Mozart's influence indeed can be heard much more clearly when presented in this purely musical fashion without the awkwardness of some of the domestic elements and dramatic implausibilities intruding. Even those however are given new life here, with even Marzelline and Jaquino's opening duet sparkling and fresh.

Viewed purely in terms of the impact of cutting all the spoken text just so that the arias, duets and quartets can be better highlighted, Salzburg's Fidelio succeeds impressively. In no small part, the quality of the exceptional casting and singing has much to contribute to that. Jonas Kaufmann sings Florestan with all the intensity combined with sensitivity you would expect, possibly a little over-projected, but clearly in anguish for his unjust imprisonment, sustained only by the love of his wife and his belief that what is right will eventually overcome evil in the world. Adrianne Pieczonka is also about as good as you can get in this role nowadays. Hans-Peter König as ever phrases beautifully with rounded depth and resonance as Rocco. Olga Bezsmertna is a bright, lyrical and passionate Marzelline, well matched with Norbert Ernst's Jacopo. I found Tomasz Konieczny's baritone lacking in colour and dynamic when he sang Wotan in the 2015 Vienna Ring Cycle, but he is a little better here as Pizarro.

If the reconstruction, interpretation and performance allow the opera to flow more beautifully on a purely musical level, it does risk making a nonsense of the dramatic content. Christian Schmidt's sets for Claus Guth's production don't even bother with a jail or even any familiar sense of captivity. The action is set in what looks like a large undecorated ballroom or anteroom which is dominated by a huge black monolith that rotates to obscure and block the way between the characters, serving also to permit entrances and exits. Light and darkness are important symbols in this work, and this is emphasised by the black dress of Pizarro and his men contrasted with the immaculate white of the prisoners who troop out for "O welche Lust". No dressing in rags here. Shadows are also significant, reflected boldly on the walls, shifting in size and solidity.

The representation of a 'shadow side' is a common psychological device used by Claus Guth, and it's extended here - also not uncommonly - to a number of doubles. The most obvious candidate for such a division is of course Fidelio/Leonora, but at least Guth doesn't or seems not to make too much of the male/female persona of Leonora's disguise. Quite how he wants to mark that division however is anyone's guess, as the silent shadow double for Leonora here seems rather to be the underlying expression of the fear and confusion (over Marzelline's interest in Fidelio) that Leonora cannot show on the surface. Quite why the shadow Leonora frantically expresses herself using exaggerated sign-language gestures isn't obvious. Nor is it clear why the fairly one-dimensional Pizarro is the only other figure with a shadow-self, and indeed he doesn't seem to offer any more insight on the nature of the evil that is already there in the character's expressions and actions.

If the purpose of Guth's concept is difficult to determine, and can't exactly be said to fill in the gaps left by the cuts to the spoken dialogue (Guth in fact introducing industrial noise sounds and amplified breathing in their place), the setting looks good and works dramatically with the characterisation. Up to a point. I daresay prior familiarity with Fidelio aids understanding of what is happening and there are a few other concessions. The duets are still there, and a lot of the conflicts of light and dark occurs there. These are also superbly played and sung for all the necessary impact. It also helps to have a projected image of Florestan during the overture as a hint of the object of Leonora's mission. It's not a bad idea either even if it's just to remind the audience who have come to see him that Jonas Kaufmann will appear, since it's a good hour and a half and into Act II before we see or hear Florestan.

It's only when we see Florestan and the state that he is in that the nature of the opera and Guth's directorial touches hits home with more of an impact. As far as the opera goes this ought to be a big deal, and Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic certainly set that up the drama of the outcome in the Leonore No. 3 introduction to the finale. Quite whether Guth's direction works to the same extent or even follows the same direction is less certain. By the time we get to the Finale where the black monolith has disappeared leaving behind only a pit in the floor of the ballroom and a huge chandelier refracts light everywhere, the set starts to look more like an emotional space rather than a physical one.

If it were not already obvious, particularly with the in-between breathing and the noise, Florestan's confused, exaggerated, horrified reaction to Leonora and his 'freedom' suggests that the whole idea of the rescue - with all the implausibilities that lie within the rescue opera itself - is just a feverish fantasy of the prisoner's mind. While psychologically this is likely to be more realistically the state of mind of a tortured man left to starve and die in isolation, it is not, I imagine, exactly what Beethoven had in mind. Leonora's shock at Florestan expiring on the final note of the opera suggests a mix of subjective and objective realities, so it could be that the rescue is just too much for Florestan's weakened body and spirit to take. That ending certainly has a big impact, but the confusion of the final scene does tend to detract from the spirit of what is truly great about the work.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele, Medici