Thursday 26 September 2013

Fidelio at London Coliseum

A scene from Fidelio by Beethoven @ London Coliseum. An English National Opera production. Directed by Calixto Bieito. Conducted by Edward Gardner. Adrian Dwyer & Sarah Tynan  ©Tristram Kenton
Adrian Dwyer & Sarah Tynan  ©Tristram Kenton
Calixto Bieito's production of Beethoven's Fidelio opened English National Opera's 2013/14 season on Wednesday 25 September 2013. A co-production with Bavarian State Opera, the production was first seen in Munich in 2010. With sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Ingo Krügler, the production was a spectacular re-imagining of Beethoven's music drama. Sung in David Pountney's translation, the spoken dialogue was abandonned in favour of texts by Jose Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy. Bieito had instigated musical changes too, reverting to Beethoven's third Leonore Overture (used at the 1806 performances of the opera), rather than the overture Beethoven wrote for the 1814 revision. Bieito also introduced a movement from Beethoven's string Quartet Op 132 between the two scenes of act two.

The performance featured a very strong cast, Emma Bell and Stuart Skelton were Leonore and Florestan, with Sarah Tynan as Marzelline , Adrian Dwyer as Jacquino, James Creswell as Rocco, Philip Horst as Pizzaro and Roland Wood as Fernando, with Edward Gardner conducting.

Beethoven's changes to his opera have left director with something of a dilemma, the 1814 version pushed the second half towards thorough going music drama whilst not jettisoning the more singspiel elements in the first half. If you are not careful, Marzelline and Jacquino can appear to be in a different opera to Leonore and Florestan. Mix into this the general modern dislike for spoken dialogue and you have a recipe for disaster. With directors frequently choosing to jettison the dialogue completely.

But Beethoven's opera is designed to be both sung and spoken, the one setting off the other. Bieito's solution, to replace the dialogue with dystopic texts about incarceration, at least recognised this but it left the characters marooned and the first half of the opera felt very much Pirandello-like, five characters in search of an opera.

It did not help that the quality of the spoken sections was very poor, with bad projection and diction so it was difficult to follow the spoken texts. Bell, a very fine singing actress and an experienced Leonore, delivered her spoken sections in a very interior way which just did not carry in the London Coliseum.

Ringst's set was very spectacular, though whether the set of Fidelio needs to be is a moot point. The curtain went up on a huge labyrinthine frame filling the whole stage up to the proscenium, lit with fine imagination by Tim Mitchell. This formed an abstract setting for the opera, for the whole of act one the characters lived in this frame, climbing around and about constantly.

At the opening of act two, we saw the same frame with Stuart Skelton's Florestan at its centre. Before a note of music had been sung, the frame slowly pivoted down moving through 90 degrees to become horizontal and forming a true labyrinth on stage around Skelton. Truly spectacular, but it certainly upstaged Skelton's great solo. Not content with that, in the interlude between scenes one and two of act two, the Heath Quartet played and edited version of the slow movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Op 132, each player suspended in a cage lowered from the flies to hover over the labyrinth. A truly remarkably image, both visual and aural, but one that left you wondering what it had to do with Fidelio.

For act two of Beethoven's revised 1814 version of the opera, the music is generally too through composed and tightly structured to subvert. The opera's finale would seem to have been bomb proof, byt Bieito subverted it by having Roland Wood play Fernando as a simpering fop in 18th century costume (the rest of the cast were in modern dress). This Fernando was no saviour and in the original Munich production the character had looked like the Joker out of the Batman films.

In a programme note, Maria M. Delgado argued that Bieito 'provides a reading which takes the meldorama of the opera and repositions it as a tale of public as well as personal incarceration'. Hmm

The effect in act one was to suggest that all the characters were incarcerated. There was no plot, just a series of intense encounters by the inmates. And the encounters were all strongly and poignantly realised. Sarah Tynan made a poised Marzelline, forever struggling with her rejection of Jacquino and her love of Fidelio. Adrian Dwyer was a slightly edgy toned Jacquino, but he displayed a nice flexiblility and his duet with Tynan certainly was full of intense anxiety. James Creswell's Rocco was permanently chained to a suitcase of money, hardly the bluff jailor, he was creepy and self-serving. Emma Bell has quite a soft grain to her voice, so that for the first half of act one she blended beautifully and the quartet was profoundly beautiful and very poised. But it sat rather like a found object, rather than arising out of the drama. The music drama took off with Bell's superb account of Leonore's act one aria, her voice gloriously flexible and riding with ease over the orchestra, sympathetically handled by Gardner.

Whatever the staging might have lacked in wonder was well made up for by the full voiced singing of the chorus as the released prisoners.

Despite being upstaged by the scenery, Skelton's account of Florestan's aria at the opening of act two was glorious. He has quite a narrow focused tone which meant that he was nicely flexible in the more bravura passages whilst retaining power and still being thrilling. The duet was rather contained, Bell and Skelton sang whilst dressing in street clothes and it lacked the feeling of rapture breaking the bounds. This was indeed a very contained performance, Skelton's Mein Engel Leonore similarly laced the feeling of rapture unable to be contained by the musical structure.

The finale was something of a disappointment . The chorus was glorious, providing a truly radiant and very brilliant sound. Skelton's Florestan was clearly a damaged man, but it was Wood's ridiculous Fernando who undermined the glorious certainty of Beethoven's music. Perhaps, today, we find such certainty uncomfortable.

Philip Horst was a blustering rather than fearsome Pizzaro, finely sung but you felt he wasn't by any means threatening enough.

The Heath Quartet gave a fine account of the excerpt from String Quartet in A minor, Op 132, it cannot have been easy playing hung in cages above the stage.

The orchestra under Gardner was on very strong form, providing some fine grained playing and some very sophisticated wind solos. Garner took an expansive but not massive account of the score, it flowed nicely and the great moments had real excitement, but it also had rather a contained feel.

The use of Leonore no. 3 as the overture meant that we got to hear the triumphant music at the close of the overture. Dramatically most directors argue that this means we peak too soon, but with Gardner and the orchestra on such form, who could really complain?

We should not preclude directors experimenting with form in opera the way that directors do in the straight theatre. But Bieito's changes seemed to suggest that he rather wished Beethoven had written a different opera. That said, Bieito gained some very strong performances from his cast and the production was undoubtedly popular with the audience.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm afraid we took an early shower; left at half time. We found it incomprehensible, which is a real shame for such a beautiful opera. Also, for much of the 1st half, the orchestra was simply too loud for the singers - even though the playing was sublime. Sadly, a 'miss' for us!


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