David Lang’s Prisoner of the State is a modern day take on Fidelio, and it achieves the right balance between creating a work that speaks to us today, while retaining enough of the spirit of the original to justify using that as a starting point. This is quite an accomplishment because with the equivalent to Leonore being ‘merely’ The Assistant, Don Pizarro The Leader, Rocco The Jailer and Florestan The Prisoner (Marzelline and Jaquino are entirely absent), it initially looked as if the opera was in danger of becoming solely about concepts rather than real people for whom we could feel something.
In the event, the opera does have a definite story and another of its strengths is the fact that on the surface it appears to follow Fidelio, meaning that the all important differences are quite subtle. For example, in ‘O welche Lust’ the prisoners are largely focusing on the light and air they enjoy in the moment. In the equivalent here there is no temporary relief so their singing is entirely focused on the dream of freedom.
Similarly, while in the original there is a sense in which Don Fernando will instigate wider reforms as he rights the wrongs of Don Pizarro’s rule, Lang’s work simply asks what the release of one person will achieve because nothing else will change. That the system cannot be broken is both a contemporary idea and the message of Prisoner of the State, and it means that the opera ends on a far more pessimistic note than Fidelio. In fact, one is left in no doubt that the opera is about the realities of today as The Jailer instructs The Assistant only ever to do good things if they are seen doing them, and declares that gold pays for luck, love and life.
When Calixto Bieito directed Fidelio for English National Opera in 2013 he tried to suggest that we are all prisoners chained to the system. This opened him to the criticism that to suggest an office worker’s problems really were the same as those of a political prisoner trivialised the hardship of the latter. However, this was caught up with the difficulty that Bieito was trying to say something that Fidelio simply is not. Therefore, Prisoner of the State does not suffer from this problem because it is actually written to make the point that the only difference between those inside and outside the prison is that inside one can see the chains.
The music is extremely engaging and on many occasions it feels like minimalism at its most immediate and vital as the strings render a series of motifs of just three of four notes each. Paradoxically, however, it is The Governor who is handed the most tender and soul searching arias, as if to suggest that he is not necessarily espousing a cruel, personal philosophy but rather wider truths. The performance, which constituted the work’s European premiere, was semi-staged by Elkhanah Pulitzer, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Ilan Volkov, wearing black clothes and woolly hats. The chorus, comprising the men’s voices of the BBC Singers and Guildhall School of Music and Drama students, appeared behind a caged screen sporting yellow prisoners’ clothes, while the principals sang from the front of the stage on and around two large blocks. One of these contained The Prisoner who could be glimpsed through two barred windows in it, and who frequently sang from a prostrate position.
Possibly the most accomplished performance of all came from Alan Oke as The Governor, whose tenor and presence were perfectly suited to proclaiming things that were larger than himself. There was, however, not a single weak link in the cast as Julie Mathevet displayed a beautiful soprano as The Assistant, Davóne Tines a commanding bass-baritone as The Jailer and Jarrett Ott a ringing tenor as The Prisoner. Christopher Bowen, Tom Raskin, Edward Price and Jimmy Holliday also played their parts to the full as the Guards.
Prisoner of the State was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on BBC Sounds for thirty days.