You that look pale, and tremble at this chance
That are but mutes, or audience to this act…
The connection between the witnesses to actions on stage and the theatrical audience is a long established one, dating right back to Shakespeare and his analysis of what ‘performance’ is in Hamlet. With all the resources of today, those with a penchant for this type of thing are able to take it a step further, showing the audience to themselves as well as making them the onlookers of the ‘stage spectators.’ The only oddity with the use of this in Tobias Kratzer’s production of Fidelio is that it appears to have surprised many, but in reality it’s by now so common as to have percolated down to the Lower Fifth’s annual offering in the school Drama Competition.
Yes, there we were, seeing our well-dressed selves (‘Gosh, there’s Bunty! Cuckoo, Bunty!’) as we sat and speculated about the health of Jonas Kaufmann, who had been announced as indisposed, and later on we gazed in stupefaction at the ‘mutes’ surrounding his stand-in as the poor fellow writhed on his pile of slag. Yes, that’s just what’s wanted as Florestan sings that glorious music – we’re all too stupid to just listen, we have to have a social point made in the form of a stage audience quaffing bottled water and tucking in to choccy bickies. Of course we’d already got that message, given that we were clearly judged unable to simply listen to the overture, but in the now horribly common manner, our eyes had to be regaled with supernumeraries scurrying about doing something or other.
Fortunately there was quite a lot to enjoy if you were able to distance yourself from the pointless and intrusive shenanigans. David Butt Philip has a beautiful lyric tenor voice, and we’ve praised him highly in a couple of roles, but he’s really not the heroic tenor needed for Florestan; however, given the circumstances his performance was a great deal more than a game stab, since he negotiated the taxing lines with skill and gave a most creditable dramatic showing.
He was aided in this by Lise Davidsen’s Leonore, who guided him sympathetically whilst giving a fully rounded interpretation in her role. She probably had the most to put up with in terms of the sheer daftness – or perhaps just ignorance – of what was done with some of the most poignant moments in Beethoven’s work. There was quite a bit of interpolated dialogue in this staging, but one crucial part of what you usually hear, was omitted. When Fidelio tries to help the ‘prisoner,’ Rocco tells her off and she responds, ‘Ihr selbst, meister Rocco’ – meaning, even you are moved by him, and Rocco replies ‘Ja, der Mensch hat so eine Stimme’ (Yes, the man has such a voice) to which Fidelio says ‘Ja! Sie dringt in die tiefe des Herzens’ (It penetrates deep into the heart.’) In this version, she simply says ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Crass, does not begin to define that replacement.
When Leonore sings her great central aria, it really is quite enough for the soprano to shape the lines and give them dramatic import – Davidsen did both beautifully, with her characteristically noble, poignant phrasing – but the audience was impeded in their enjoyment of such glorious singing, by the stage business of her unravelling her boob bands, thus revealing to the shocked Marzelline that she is not a lad. Of course, one half of the audience is thinking ‘Oo err, bit of a shocker, well now she knows, the daft lass’ and the other, ‘That doesn’t happen!’ No, of course it doesn’t.
What is the moment in opera, which most moves you? Of course there are many, but it’s likely that the beginning of the great Act I quartet in Fidelio would be a frequent choice: Rocco asks, ‘Meinst du, ich kann dir nichts in Herz sehen?’ (Do you think I can’t see what’s in your heart?’) and at the moment of his final syllable, the ‘cellos begin that pulsating phrase which so eloquently mimics the beating of the heart – and then Marzelline gives voice with ‘Mir ist so wunderbar…’ What makes it so moving, is that Rocco has no idea what’s in Fidelio’s heart, but here – of course! – all that went out the window with the loutish hangers-on / gaolers gabbling a garbled version of his words, and the orchestra had to wait for them to finish. There are no words. Well, there are, but they are not printable.
The playing was absolutely incandescent, Sir Antonio Pappano urging the orchestra on to great heights and tenderly shaping the singers’ lines. The ROH chorus, too, gave their all; there are so many great voices here, and William Spaulding has yet again coached them into the ideal whole, whether dishevelled prisoners (the director does get them right, thank goodness) or jubilant populace. Filipe Manu and Timothy Dawkins impressed as First and Second Prisoner.
Amanda Forsythe was not at her best on this occasion – perhaps she was coming down with the bug which afflicted Kaufmann – since she seemed a rather small-voiced Marzelline; she is a wonderful Handel singer, so she almost certainly shone in other performances. Robin Tritschler’s Jaquino was on form, singing eloquently and presenting a forlorn lover; what a pity that he was denied any fulfilment at the end.
Georg Zeppenfeld’s Rocco was a dignified, perhaps not so lovable as usual, interpretation of the role, and Simon Neal’s Pizarro was a villain who relished his hatred perhaps a bit too much. Egils Siliņš was a fine Don Fernando, but it was a pity that his heart-rending lines ‘Euch, edle Frau allein…’ (Only you, noble lady…) went for so little as he had to simply utter them to thin air.
There are two more performances, with tickets available for both, and the word is that Kaufmann will be singing – fingers crossed for those who have yet to hear his poetic Florestan. You can see the production ‘live’ in cinemas all over the place on March 17th – get yourself one of those recliner seats and plenty of popcorn, and you’ll be able to close your eyes and wallow in Lise Davidsen’s moving Leonore and Beethoven’s glorious music.