Saturday, 7 March 2020

Musical peaks: Beethoven's Fidelio at Covent Garden with Lise Davidsen and Jonas Kauffmann

Beethoven: Fidelio - Jonas Kaufmann - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Jonas Kaufmann - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Beethoven Fidelio; Lise Davidsen, Jonas Kaufmann, dir: Tobias Kratzer, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 March 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Thrilling musical contributions rescue an overly conceptual production

It is probably an understatement to say that Covent Garden's new production of Beethoven's Fidelio was eagerly awaited. Featuring Lise Davidsen as Leonore and Jonas Kaufmann as Fidelio, it was the casting which drew the attention rather than the Royal Opera debut of director Tobias Kratzer, who studied at the Bavarian Theatre Academy August Everding. At the premiere of the production (on 1 March 2020), apologies were made for Kaufmann. We caught the third performance of Beethoven's Fidelio on 6 March 2020 at the Royal Opera House. Antonio Pappano conducted with Davidsen and Kaufmann joined by Robin Tritschler as Jaquino, Amanda Forsythe as Marzelline, Georg Zeppenfeld as Rocco, Simon Neal as Don Pizzaro and Egils Silins as Don Fernando.

My first exposure to Beethoven's Fidelio was at Scottish Opera in the 1970s with Helga Dernesch (still singing as a soprano) and the great Charles Craig, in a production by Peter Ebert that might be described as intelligently traditional. At Covent Garden in 1981 it was again the casting which made its mark, Jon Vickers as Florestan and Linda Esther Gray as Leonore in a revival of a production which dated back to 1961! Since then, productions have veered towards the conceptual rather than the straightforward narrative. This reflects a basic problem with Beethoven's final version of his opera, it exists very much in two parts and the music for Act Two pushes the piece towards the transcendent mythic, leaving behind the idea of rescue opera and singspiel/opera comique. Most directors choose either to stage act two as an extension of act one (the traditional route), leaving the transcendence to the music, or to make act one more conceptual (the modernist route) including a tendency to minimise, or remove altogether, the spoken dialogue.

As an opera, a dramaturgical entity, Beethoven's first version of the opera, known as Leonore, works best [see my review of the Buxton Festival's 2016 performances of Leonore]. For his production at Covent Garden, director Tobias Kratzer (working with regular design partner Rainer Sellmaier) decided to reflect the split between the two acts in the staging. Basing the drama in France at the time of the French Revolution (the original Spanish setting was almost certainly designed simply to get round the censor), Act One was pure singspiel, completely naturalistic with Kratzer's revised dialogue aiming to increase the dramatic depth. For Act Two we moved to the more conceptual, the leading characters were still in 18th century dress, and Florestan (Jonas Kaufmann) was chained on a bare stone surface, but surrounded by a chorus of silent observers in modern dress. They know what is happening, and flinch, but do nothing until the moment the trumpet sounds.

It is an interesting idea, the idea of agency and group-think, we are all responsible. But the decision to emphasise this by having live video (video designer Manuel Braun) made for an interestingly uncomfortable setting, for a period, but eventually the video became distracting. You were watching the huge images of people rather than the soloists, and there was something a bit self-conscious about it all, 'ACTING' rather than acting. Kratzer also adjusted the ending, the agency of change was not Don Ferrando (Egils Silins) but Marzelline (Amanda Forsythe)!

Beethoven: Fidelio - Lise Davidsen, Jonas Kaufmann - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Lise Davidsen, Jonas Kaufmann - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
The first act was fine, but I found the action overly fussy, too busy. To make the point in Act Two about Marzelline, Kratzer needed to adjust the action in Act One, so he had Marzelline observe Fidelio unbinding her breasts; all well and good but this all took place during Lise Davidsen's thrilling account of 'Abscheulicher' making far too much of a distraction from the music.

Perhaps my biggest objection was to the placing of the action.
At the very end of Act Two the chorus steps forward off the set and onto the fore-stage. A striking effect, but in order to leave room for this, Sellmaier's basic box set was placed slightly too far up stage, meaning that all the action placed the singers up stage, rather further from the audience than was desirable. You longed for singers to be able to come forward and project into the auditorium.

It was the musical performances which counted. Lise Davidsen made a thrilling Leonore; at this stage of her career her acting does not perhaps have the depth of experience to it, but she brought youthful eagerness and brilliant flexibility to the role. Her performance was almost effortless, in the best way, giving us a feeling of the shapeliness of the music rather than the stress of trying to perform it. Davidsen's performance will undoubtedly change and grow, but in the combination of freshness and power this was truly memorable.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Simon Neal - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Simon Neal - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
I doubt that I have heard Florestan more subtly and more beautifully sung than by Jonas Kaufmann. Granted, some of the more elaborate passages were a bit of a stretch (the role in the original 1805 version was written for a lighter tenor) but the opening of his great Act Two solo was daringly quiet and beautifully controlled. Kaufmann's voice does not open up at the top the way someone like Jon Vickers did, he does not fill the auditorium with a huge sound, and instead you have to accept that he uses his resources to admirably shape the music. After the opening solo, however, Kratzer's staging seemed to rather dilute things and as Act Two progressed it seemed that Kratzer was more interested in the agency of Marzelline and the chorus, rather than his two principals.

The supporting cast were all completely admirable. Robin Tritschler did his best not to make Jaquino seem like a wet week, his musicality ensuring that we admired him even if we did not love him. Amanda Forsythe was a charming Marzelline, fully able to stretch the role in the way that Kratzer wanted. For someone who first experience Rocco as Bill McCue's delightfully bumbling character, Georg Zeppenfeld's Rocco was remarkably intense and serious. Simon Neal was thrilling as Don Pizarro,  making you regret the lost of Pizarro's music from Leonore. Egils Silins was a fine Don Fernando, here simply one of the observers in modern dress, with Filipe Manu and Timothy Dawkins as prisoners.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Lise Davidsen, Jonas Kaufmann - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Lise Davidsen, Jonas Kaufmann - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
In the pit, Antonio Pappano conducted a strong yet lithe account of the score, and the expanded chorus was on thrilling form. Towards the end of Act Two there were some strange acoustic effects, perhaps the result of the shape of the scenery, with the chorus and orchestra not quite in synchronicity

This is one of those productions which may well come more into focus with future performances and revivals. You feel that more robust performances from the principals, that grab you by the scruff of the next and don't let you go, would bring a different shape to Act Two. However, this is probably one of the best sung accounts of the opera around at the moment.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Bringing the House Down: bass Brindley Sherratt on the gala at Glyndebourne for The Meath  Epilepsy Charity - interview
  • Communal experience & the re-telling of familiar stories: Bach's St John Passion from English Touring Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Strong individual performances in the revival of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • His message still resonates with us today: artistic director Marios Papadopoulos discusses the Oxford Philharmonic's year-long Beethoven Festival  - Interview
  • Still in fine form: Meyerbeer's Le prophète returns to the Deutsche Oper, Berlin with Gregory Kunde back in the title role (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Pianist Iyad Sughayer in Khachaturian, Mozart and Liszt for the City Music Foundation (★★★★) - concert review
  • Spareness, clarity, quirkiness: William Howard plays Howard Skempton (★★★★) - cd review
  • The cello sonata from early Beethoven to Shostakovich: Anglo-French duo Lydia Shelley & Nicolas Stavy at Conway Hall - concert review
  • The shipwrecked world, and nature extinct: Musica Antica Rotherhithe gives the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale in aid of Operation Noah  - concert review
  • The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music  - interview
  • The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite (★★★★) - concert review
  • Wild Waves & Woods from Sweden: the Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place  (★★★★) - concert review
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