Bloomberg News, 4 December 2008
Jorg von Uthmann
Beethoven: Fidelio, Paris, November/December 2008
‘Fidelio’ Gets New Text, Hi-Tech Gadgets, Odd Overture in Paris
Beethoven’s only opera, is often staged to celebrate an extraordinary event -- such as the resurrection of the bombed-out Vienna State Opera after the war.

The new production at the Opera National de Paris -- the first in 26 years -- opened with a gala celebrating the 65th birthday of Gerard Mortier, the outgoing director of the house. That the opera is set in Spain, Mortier’s future workplace (he will be director of Madrid’s Teatro Real), is a happy coincidence.

The evening begins with a surprise. Instead of the traditional overture, Sylvain Cambreling conducts Leonore I, a less effective earlier version. Leonore III, the most dramatic of the four overtures, usually played before the final scene, is dropped altogether.

The excision of the two most popular overtures is not the only surprise. By common consent, the spoken dialogues are the opera’s Achilles heel. Most directors cut as much as possible, leaving just a few bridges between the musical islands.

Not in Paris. Mortier invited the German writer Martin Mosebach to bring the awkward text up to date. After some hesitation, Mosebach came up with plenty of new ideas.

You hear Rocco, the jailer, complain about the hardships of his job. Marzelline, his daughter, muses on Fidelio’s smooth skin. Jacquino, her luckless suitor, professes his conviction that what counts in marriage is the father’s consent, not the daughter’s feelings: “Marriage is a business!” he cries.

Murderous Minister?

Mosebach’s most radical innovation is to present Pizarro, the heavy, as a henchman of the Minister who, he suggests, would have preferred to find no trace of Florestan in the prison instead of freeing him. In the “Suddeutsche Zeitung,” a German daily newspaper, Mosebach justified his heretical view with the career of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, on whose play the opera is based: After the French Revolution, Bouilly apparently condemned several opponents of the new regime to death.

Director Johan Simons, on the other hand, has remained faithful to Beethoven’s intentions. His last production at the Paris Opera, “Simone Boccanegra,” angered quite a few people by transferring the story to Ukraine and its Orange Revolution.

This time Simons and his set designer Jan Versweyveld have simply modernized the prison, stuffing it with monitors, computers and other hi-tech gadgets. That a modern-day Pizarro would hardly try to kill his enemy with a dagger doesn’t seem to bother them.

Angela Denoke in the title role is svelte enough to pass muster as a man. Yet her voice is too small: When the going gets tough, it spreads and her intonation suffers.

Heroic Feats

The hero of the evening is Jonas Kaufmann. He masters Florestan’s lyrical passages and ecstatic outbursts with equal ease. Through almost the entire Act II, he sings lying flat on his face -- no mean feat but perhaps a bit over the top, even for a dying man.

Franz-Josef Selig is a warm Rocco, Julia Kleiter a somewhat colorless Marzelline. Alan Held’s Pizarro and Ales Briscein’s Jacquino, both non-Germans, struggle with the unfamiliar text.

What does the updating do for the opera’s emotional impact? Not much. In the famous Vienna production of “Fidelio,” conducted by Leonard Bernstein, my companion burst into tears after Florestan’s liberation. She was not alone. In Paris, the eyes stay dry.

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