Beethoven gave us only one opera, against around twenty from each of his two great predecessors, Mozart and Haydn. Yet, when you consider the monumental struggle over nine years he had bringing Fidelio to fruition, you can perhaps understand why: three versions, problems with censorship, libretto, singers (no change there then, you might say!), length, structure...It is hardly surprising he never wrote another.
Yet what a masterpiece Fidelio is! So quintessentially Beethoven; on the surface a love story – a frankly implausible tale taken from a French novel of a woman disguising herself as a man to rescue her husband from prison, complicated by the daughter of the jailer falling in love with him/her – but in reality a story of the triumph of freedom over oppression. No wonder the officers of the French army occupying Vienna in effect closed the opera down after only three performances. They knew what the "Prisoners' Chorus" was really about.
For the new production at Glyndebourne there is no doubt that the larger theme is more important than the love story. The set is a modern prison of wire cages, patrolled by shaven-headed hard-men. When the prisoners are released to enjoy the daylight they press against the cages in a way that makes you long to give them their freedom – shamelessly helped by the fact that one, obviously blinded by torture, wears a bandage over his eyes, groping with his hands to feel his way.
I have no complaints about the director Deborah Warner's attempts to bring the opera up to date – the set deliberately evokes the searing images of prison camps in Bosnia, the prisoners looking more dazed and confused than bedraggled and starving – for the theme is universal and timeless, like all of Beethoven's music itself. But elements of the productions jarred. Rocco the jailer is deliberately understated. His "Gold" aria, which should be a moment of fine pastiche, sees him sitting back in his chair, drinking whisky, disinterested; not what Beethoven intended. For him Rocco is a good man caught up in a drama not of his own making, desiring only to see his daughter happily married, and racked with the guilt which ultimately makes it possible for Leonore to rescue her husband. This Rocco – albeit finely sung by Reinhard Hagen – is numbed by it all, which robs of credibility his agreement to release the prisoners temporarily into the daylight, his refusal to commit murder on behalf of Pizarro and his kindness towards the condemned Florestan.
The climax to the opera – Fidelio/Leonore's intercession to stop Pizarro murdering Florestan – frankly is mishandled. The moment Leonore unveils her disguise with the words "Töt' erst sein Weib!" ("First kill his wife!"), rising to that notorious B flat, she should pull out a gun and hold it to Pizarro's chest – as in the famous fresco from the Vienna State Opera. But in this production she unbuttons the top of her blouse to show her cleavage. Pizarro, who is quite capable of pushing her aside, can only gaze on in wonder! No wonder the audience laughed, which is emphatically not what this moment is designed to invoke! To compound the oddness, when Florestan and Leonore are finally left alone to sing the rapturous "O namenlose Freude!" (Oh joy beyond words), they don't so much as look at each other. Only at the end do they fall into each other's arms – as if the director has said, "hold off, so that when the moment comes it will be all the more emotional". Well it isn't. I wanted to shout at the stage "Hug each other!"
And one other gripe: in the glorious final scene, with all the townsfolk praising God for delivering Florestan and singing of their joy at Pizarro's downfall and their freedom (in, for some unaccountable reason, a continuous downpour of snow), Marzelline sits on the front of the stage, her legs dangling down into the orchestra pit, raging like a petulant child as Jaquino tries one last time to persuade her to marry him. Then, as the final chords sound, she runs off the stage, through the crowd, crying her eyes out. Again, this is not Beethoven's intention. In fact, in the libretto, he even has Marzelline and Rocco specifically singing with the chorus in praise of God.
A pity, since Lisa Milne sang beautifully, as did Timothy Robinson as Jaquino. Although these roles can often be seen against the unfolding drama as too lightweight, one could understand the frustration of both of them, powerless as they were to influence events.
The main roles are outstanding. Steven Page is a wonderfully menacing Don Pizarro. Hands thrust in his pockets, his stride just a little too wide, he stamps his devious authority on jailer and prisoners alike. He sings from a twisted mouth, with genuine venom in his voice. No wonder my huge cheer for him at his curtain call was almost outweighed by the traditional boos for the villain. It was a pleasant surprise to see that he was capable of a smile!
Charlotte Margiono, the Dutch soprano, was unwell (after the dreadful review she received in the Daily Telegraph I'm inclined to believe she got on the first plane home), and so the role of Fidelio/Florestan was sung by her understudy Gunilla Stephen-Kallin, making her Glyndebourne debut. She sang bravely: only in the rising notes of the great aria "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?" did her voice slither slightly. Who can fail to forgive her nerves? Her genuinely-stunned look at the roar that greeted her curtain call must have touched everyone in the full auditorium.
I've saved the best till last. Kim Begley really is emerging as one of Britain's finest tenors. He was much praised for his recent Parsifal at Covent Garden. His Florestan is simply superb. That first dreadful cry of "Gott, welch' dunkel hier" at the start of Act Two emerged from the sounds of the orchestra itself, so that at first you thought it was a musical instrument, then growing in intensity until it filled the hall. A spine-tingling moment. His pathos as the condemned man, his gratitude at receiving water and bread, and his joy at his rescue moved me to tears.
Although the period-instrument ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave an energised performance under the baton of French conductor Louis Langrée, whose energetic, jerky movements reminded me at times of Solti, their sound clashed somewhat with the values of the modern production and, despite playing for all their worth, sometimes struggled to fill the hall. (Langrée shares the run with Simon Rattle.)
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