Evening Standard, 02 March 2020
Beethoven: Fidelio, Royal Opera House London, ab 1. März 2020
Fidelio review: Opera superstars underwhelming in Beethoven's tale of heroism
The first act of Tobias Kratzer’s new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio relocates the action from Spain to France during the Reign of Terror. Tickets for this staging, featuring superstars Jonas Kaufmann and Lise Davidsen, were as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel himself and I’m not sure that the starstruck punters at yesterday’s opening, now considerably the poorer, will feel they got their money’s worth.

Kaufmann, for whom an apology was made, intermittently displayed his golden tone and famed legato, but was underwhelming in Florestan’s central aria “Gott! Welch’ Dunkel”. At curtain call, clearly discontented, he took the most perfunctory of bows. Davidsen’s character, Leonore, in her big aria, “Abscheulicher!”, sings frequently of love giving her strength. Davidsen’s imposing tone – her voice is indisputably a magnificent instrument – certainly had a steely strength, but it lacked the vital gleam of humanity here.

Last year in Bayreuth, Kratzer delivered one of the finest productions of Wagner’s Tannhäuser I’ve ever seen. With his fleshing out of Fidelio’s admittedly flawed dramaturgy, using his own expanded dialogue, quoting Büchner (notably Danton’s Death) and Grillparzer, he at times looked like repeating that success, but the intellectual brilliance of his conception was not, at least on the first night, always matched by convincing execution. Fidelio has always been acknowledged as moving beyond the “rescue opera” genre to a more universal, ethically inspired disquisition.

Powered by the revolutionary impulse, Kratzer’s production deals with the challenges faced by ordinary people when confronted by injustice and loss of freedom. To do this he sets the first act, with handsome historically based designs by Rainer Sellmaier, in the Reign of Terror – the threat of the guillotine is, literally, just round the corner, as attested by a basket of severed heads – but moves in the second act to a more universal sphere. Thus Florestan, rather than being imprisoned in a dark dungeon, lies on a slab of slate in a brightly lit room observed by modern-day witnesses, who to a greater or lesser extent begin to empathise with Leonore’s heroic endeavour to save her husband.

Marzelline, beautifully sung by Amanda Forsythe, recovers from her disappointment at discovering that the disguised Leonore is not actually an eligible bachelor to lead the fight against oppression. At the climax of the Prison Scene, as the tyrannical governor Don Pizarro threatens to murder Florestan, Marzelline appears like a latterday Annie Oakley, with blazing gun and trumpet (the symbol of liberation).

I like the idea of her empowerment, but it does rather undermine the opera’s central conjugal relationship; furthermore, Leonore’s stirring gesture of intervention (“First kill his wife” – so admired by Wagner that he borrowed it in two of his own operas) has to be sacrificed. Worse still, the moment was sabotaged here by a cack-handed piece of blocking: the presence of superstars can sometimes be inhibiting in ensemble work.

The prison warder, Rocco, usually depicted as a shallow, venal character, is played here (and superbly sung) by Georg Zeppenfeld as a father concerned for his daughter’s well-being and not lacking a social conscience.

It has been calculated, by one of the more numerate Beethoven commentators, that Pizarro’s aria “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” contains no fewer than 49 high Ds. Too many of them were not bang in tune on this occasion, but Simon Neal was more successful in dispensing with the overtones of a pantomime villain that normally surround it. The Minister, Don Fernando, well sung by Egils Silins, emerges democratically from the populace to give judgment.

Antonio Pappano conducts with characteristic sensitivity. Kratzer’s rethinking of this problematic work appeared on the first night more satisfying as a bracing intellectual challenge than as a flesh-and-blood drama. But with a little dramaturgical polishing it could, by the time it goes into cinemas, be the beneficiary of its own rescue operation.

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