Out of the Shadows

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Beethoven’s Fidelio at Glyndebourne with Dorothea Herbert and Adam Smith

Beethoven: Fidelio - Adam Smith - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Beethoven: Fidelio - Adam Smith - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Beethoven Fidelio; Dorothea Herbert, Adam Smith, Gertrude Thoma, Callum Thorpe, Carrie-Ann Williams, Gavan Ring, dir: Frederic Wake-Walker, cond: Ben Glassberg; Glyndebourne on Tour at Glyndebourne

Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 29 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Strong performances and a radical rethink to the dramaturgy as Frederic Wake-Walker's production finally makes it to the stage

Originally entitled Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (Leonore or The Triumph of Marital Love), Beethoven’s three-act opera Fidelio, set to a German libretto, was prepared by Joseph Sonnleithner from a text by French playwright, Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. Written at the time of the French Revolution, the première took place at Vienna's Theater an der Wien on 20th November 1805 during the French occupation of Beethoven’s beloved Austria.

A troublesome work for sure, Fidelio - a prime example of a ‘rescue opera’ - harbours a long complicated history of composition having gone through three versions while parts of the score were written for an earlier (but never-completed) opera. Beethoven also knocked out a total of four overtures and the last of which, commonly known as ‘Fidelio’, widely considered the best of the bunch, the chosen overture for this production directed with flair and imagination by Frederic Wake-Walker.

Delayed by the events of last year and originally intended for the main festival, Frederic Wake-Walker's production of Beethoven's Fidelio was presented by Glyndebourne on Tour at Glyndebourne (seen 29 October 2021). Ben Glassberg conducted, with Dorothea Herbert as Leonore, Adam Smith as Florestan, plus Gertrude Thoma, Callum Thorpe, Carrie-Ann Williams, and Gavan Ring.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Dorothea Herbert - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Dorothea Herbert - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The Glyndebourne Tour’s Principal Conductor, Ben Glassberg - who, incidentally, made his BBC Proms début this year at the Royal Albert Hall conducting, not surprisingly, excerpts from Fidelio as well as the closing scene of Janáček’s Jenůfa - conducted the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, admirably led by Richard Milone, in a masterful, colourful and stirring rendering that dug deep into Beethoven’s richly-textured score setting the scene for the whole opera. 

But occurring difficulties by writing and producing opera proved so utterly disagreeable to Beethoven that he never attempted another one. In a letter to his librettist, Georg Friedrich Treitschke, he said: "I assure you, my dear Treitschke, that this opera will win me a martyr’s crown. By your cooperation you have saved what is best from the shipwreck. For all this I shall be eternally grateful to you."

The opera got off to a bumpy start and one of the main groans it received at its first performance was to the fact that it was too long and laborious - therefore tiresome. Only after a couple of performances Beethoven pulled it from the repertoire. But, I guess, it didn’t help matters when you take into account that a large part of the audience were Napoleonic soldiers who couldn’t understand a word of German. A year after its première Stephan von Breuning (Beethoven's lifelong chum from his boyhood days in Bonn) started on the task of shortening the libretto to a more agreeable length of two acts. Treitschke also lent a hand and it was this version performed at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater on 23rd May 1814 and also used for the opera’s London première at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, on 18th May 1832.

Incidentally, in the house for the Kärntnertortheater performance was the 17-year-old Franz Schubert (who, reputedly, sold his school-books to obtain a ticket) while the increasingly-deaf Beethoven conducted assisted by Michael Umlauf. He later performed the same task for Beethoven at the première of his Ninth Symphony (also at the Kärntnertortheater) on 7th May 1824. 

Beethoven: Fidelio - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The theme of the opera - portraying a desperate Leonore heavily disguised as Fidelio, a male prison guard, coming to the rescue of her husband, Florestan, sung and well-acted by tenor, Adam Smith - fitted well Beethoven's aesthetic and political outlook as the story speaks not only of liberty and justice but sacrifice and heroism as well and eventual triumph.

Thankfully, Fidelio seems to have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity over the past few years and, I feel, that this production - originally planned for the 2020 Glyndebourne Festival to mark Beethoven’s 250th and now produced for the 2021 Glyndebourne Tour - bears this out. Oddly enough, the show never took to the road. Maybe, later?

Bold and adventurous as ever, Wake-Walker dumped the opera’s original spoken dialogue replacing it with a new updated text delivered by a new character that he conjured up specifically for this production named Estella, played by London-based (but German) actress, Gertrude Thoma.

A political activist and a co-founder of an underground organisation appropriately-named ‘Prometheus’ (known, by the way, in Greek mythology as the ‘supreme trickster’) she’s engaged in some tricky and subversive work in helping Leonora to gain entry into Florestan’s cell while working with her anarchist friends trying to demolish Don Pizzaro’s evil regime.

Ms Thoma, in fact, conceived the text working alongside Peter Cant who, by the way, successfully worked with Wake-Walker on the surreal, vaudeville-type show, Mozart vs Machine, for Mahogany Opera Group in 2017, which found Mozart meeting electronic sound and video projection head on. Dominant in the first act she worked from a small desk positioned left of the stage either busy at her laptop or on the phone drawing on a fag while keeping abreast of the political situation. Constantly, she’s examining a letter written by Leonore to Florestan before her rescue mission. Containing Leonore’s poem, written specifically for this production, too, by Zoë Palmer, it was delivered in a spirited performance by Ms Thoma in her native language echoing a Berlin cabaret performer!

But in a Stasi-type raid, she’s soon bundled off to prison screaming her head off making her final statement against the brutality regime cultivated by prison governor, Don Pizarro, the role admirably sung by baritone Dingle Yandell.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Gertrude Thoma - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Gertrude Thoma - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

In the pivotal role of Leonora, German dramatic soprano, Dorothea Herbert (who sang the role for the first time in Chemnitz last year) was superb. Her strong and well-controlled voice was radiant and a joy to listen to especially in the confines of Glyndebourne’s comfy auditorium boasting such excellent acoustics. In fact, Ms Herbert (surely, a Brünnhilde in waiting!) has realised a cherished ambition on her Glyndebourne début as she has yearned for years to perform here following being de-selected for the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus during her student days. 

However, if she sings from the heart, she also speaks from the heart. "It’s a dream come true to sing a role that is so precious to me at Glyndebourne," she said. "I’ve wanted to sing at this wonderful place for so many years. There’s really no words for it other than to say that I’m over the moon!"

Overall, it was a well-cast show and Callum Thorpe’s interpretation of the jailor, Rocco - the only trusted person to be allowed in the lower levels of the dungeon by Pizarro - stands out with his rich bass voice heard to such good effect in the ‘gold’ aria from act one: ‘Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben.’ And the youthful role of Marzelline (Rocco’s daughter in love with Fidelio) was well sung by soprano Carrie-Ann Williams and so, too, was the equally youthful role of Jaquino (Rocco’s assistant in love with Marzelline) sung by tenor Gavan Ring

The set design by Anna Jones of the prison was an impressive structure made suitably dark and dreary by Peter Mumford’s moody lighting. Constructed on three levels faced by a myriad of perforated light-metal strips and designed in the circular shape of a ‘panopticon’, a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist, Jeremy Bentham, in the 18th century, and used mainly for hospitals, asylums and so forth.

Interestingly, the concept of such a design allows prisoners to be observed by a single security guard without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. Although it’s physically impossible for a single guard to observe everything that’s going on, the fact of the matter is that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. Not uncommon, of course, with the employment of CCTV today.
Detailed surveillance, however, dominated this production with video projections (intelligently created by Adam Young of the FRAY Studio) constantly being flashed on to the set created by a couple of cameramen moving about the stage in and out of the action. Nobody escapes the attention of the authorities.

Beethoven: Fidelio - Carrie-Ann Williams, Gavan Ring, Callum Thorpe, Dorothea Herbert - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Carrie-Ann Williams, Gavan Ring, Callum Thorpe, Dorothea Herbert - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

But the biggest movement on the stage and one of the highlights of the opera is, of course, the Prisoners’ Chorus (O what a joy), which was strongly sung by the Glyndebourne Chorus, a well-disciplined bunch and so well drilled by chorus director, Aidan Oliver. It was in this scene where the walls of the ‘panopticon’-style set were opened for the first time thereby giving a freshness to the singing while Mumford’s lighting levels were raised for a few vital seconds offering, perhaps, new hope to the white-smocked inmates in gaining their freedom.

And helping them and Florestan towards their freedom came when the Minister of State, Don Fernando (the role so magnificently sung and acted by bass, Jonathan Lemalu) arrives in the prison courtyard to the ravishing sound of trumpets from the battlements. 

He immediately gets down to work and proclaims justice for everyone with Pizarro getting his comeuppance while the two protagonists of the opera, Leonore and Florestan, sing lovingly of their newfound freedom in that smoothing aria ‘Oh, what boundless happiness’ standing motionless side by side with confetti raining down upon them as if on their wedding day!

A glitzy and colourful ending witnessed the assembled townsfolk, adorned with ravishing gold-coloured capes, singing the praises of the loving couple. Really, they could have jumped out of a Cologne Carnival procession!

Beethoven: Fidelio - Callum Thorpe, Adam Smith, Dorothea Herbert, Dingle Yandell - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Beethoven: Fidelio - Callum Thorpe, Adam Smith, Dorothea Herbert, Dingle Yandell - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Without a doubt, Fidelio - a shout of fury, an impassioned cry of hope and an intense love story - is a masterpiece of moral courage, humanity and musical invention and Wake-Walker’s production hit the mark so, Beethoven, there’s no need to roll over!

Reviewed by Tony Cooper





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