Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Fidelio @ Royal Opera House, London

29 March 2011

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Meinst du, ich kann dir nicht ins Herz sehen?

In all of music, is there any more moving and pregnant pause than the one which follows Rocco’s question? And then the thrumming ‘cellos shape those phrases which so clearly echo the beating of the three hearts… Mark Elder got these wonderful moments exactly right, as noble as they should always be. Elizabeth Watts and Nina Stemme were both tremulously moving in their respective responses of ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ and ‘Wie gross is die Gefahr’ – but after the quartet, it was a case of little cause for rapture.

The Prisoners’ chorus is of equal musical standing, and indeed the ROH chorus sang it superbly: Renato Balsadonna has achieved great things with them, so it was an especial shame that this scene showed up most of what was wrong about this production. Beethoven gives the Prisoners music that is redolent of hesitancy, of straggling groups of downtrodden men slowly emerging into the light – no music could be more eloquently suggestive of gradual emerging, of tentative realization of temporary joy. Here, the music’s instruction is ignored and the prisoners more or less stride out en masse, and arrange themselves decoratively as if posing for an advert for men’s grooming. Their brilliant white romper suits are certainly a glowing testament to Marzelline’s prowess in the laundry department. When the First Prisoner sings his aria, he steps forward and strikes a pose as though he were about to launch into ‘Di Rigori Armato Il Seno’ with all the rest looking as if they were about to applaud.

That kind of stagey, why-are-they-doing-this style seems typical of Jrgen Flimm’s production, revived here by Daniel Dooner. I had hoped that this time around, some of the emotionally hollow aspects might have been worked through, but it was not to be. It’s not all that difficult to make Fidelio look like a daft opera, and unfortunately this is where this team have succeeded. Maybe I’m missing some crucial existential, post-structural or neo-feminist issue, but somehow I don’t think so. It’s quite a feat to render me insensate to the suffering onstage, but thats what happened here.

Fortunately, Mark Elder and the orchestra and chorus were not alone in providing sublime moments: Elizabeth Watts is as sweet-toned a Marzelline as you could hope for, Kurt Rydl brings a lifetime’s experience to his hard-bitten but compassionate Rocco, and the ‘Jette Parker Young Artist’ member Steven Ebel showed much promise as Jaquino. John Wegner and Willard W. White are both ideal casting as Pizarro and Don Fernando respectively.

I know I said this last time around, but it is risible to have Leonore and Florestan twenty feet apart as they sing about being in each other’s arms, and almost equally daft to have the prisoners’ WAGS got up like extras in an Italian movie of the fifties – where exactly are we? That might not have mattered so much if the principals had been more engrossing. I found Karita Mattila an ideal Leonore last time, and had high hopes that Nina Stemme would be exciting in a quite different way, but I was disappointed in her singing on this occasion: although her voice is persuasive and often lovely in tone, her phrasing was choppy and she seemed to be very reliant on the conductor. Perhaps things will settle down for her as the run proceeds.

Endrich Wottrich sang Florestan last time around, and in 2007 I very much warmed to his direct, open tone and the ease with which he surmounted his aria’s vocal obstacles. Last night he seemed somewhat subdued, which is hardly surprising given that the setting around him was even more crepuscular than before. He shared with everyone on stage a sense of not really being given much chance to open out either the voice or the characterization: they all deserve a better production than this, as does Fidelio itself.

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