Recorded just prior to lockdown and largely unedited, conductor Antonio Pappano introduces a new production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, from the Royal Opera House, a story of risk and triumph against a backdrop of revolution, with Tobias Kratzer’s new staging, including some dialogue changes, bringing together the dark reality of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and the conflicts of the modern age to illuminate Fidelio’s inspiring message of a common humanity.
This is very much an opera of two halves with Act One in period as Leonore (Lise Davidsen) attempts to locate her husband, Florestan (David Butt Philip) who is a political prisoner incarcerated in a secret dungeon and subject to torture from the governor of the prison, Don Pizarro (Simon Neal). To secure a job at the jail and access to her husband, Leonore has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio. The gaoler, Rocco (Georg Zeppenfeld), has an assistant, Jaquino (Robin Tritschler) who is quite taken with his daughter, Marzelline (Amanda Forsythe), but she in turn has fallen in love with Fidelio although in a twist to the original, she becomes aware of Fidelio’s true nature.
By Act Two however the prison has been replaced by a brightly lit drawing room and the 18th C trappings are dismantled as a chorus – who are also projected onto a backscreen – sits on stage in modern dress, silently observing the unfolding trials of Florestan who can’t work our whether Fidelio is in fact his wife or merely a hallucinatory vision under torture. With the arrival of minister Don Fernando (Egils Silins) his liberation is secured with the chorus now joining in the action and celebration of the final scene. Kratzer’s point is well made, too often in the modern-day people remain silent, watching events unfold, reluctant to act until there is an inevitable shift in momentum and they loudly jump on to the winning side.
Some people prefer their operas to be served up in a traditional manner whilst others welcome modern interpretation. What we have here is a hybrid and it is very much a matter of personal taste whether that works or not. What cannot be avoided is the change to the narrative to facilitate Kratzer’s new emphasis and whilst understandable, it does on occasion rob us of some of the more important aspects of the original piece.
All of the cast perform strongly with Davidsen delivering a stand-out performance, her beautifully controlled voice more than meeting the demanding expectations of the role and accompanied by a fine acting performance that captures the anguish, hopes, and fears of Leonore.
Butt Philip provides the necessary intenseness throughout his incarceration and the necessary elation at his final relief, whilst Neal’s Pizarro was a perfectly evil politician full of his own self-belief.
Forsythe and Tritschler have an added dynamism to their roles with Kratzer’s reinterpretation and respond accordingly with Forsythe’s perfectly realised Marzelline full of revolutionary zeal whilst Tritschler reflects Jaquino’s growing sense of unease throughout.
Zeppenfeld’s superbly sung Rocco gives us a father conflicted by duty and concern for his daughter’s well-being whilst Silins sings equally well as he arrives to deliver justice.
Pappano provides his usual excellence leading the Royal Opera House Orchestra with perfect precision and spirit to meet the requirements of Beethoven’s only opera and drawing out some superb choral singing as our chorus come alive.
Beethoven’s Fidelio was transmitted on BBC4 on 26th July 2020 and is available to view for a limited time on BBC iPlayer.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 26th July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★