Broadway World, Mar. 2, 2020
by Alexandra Coghlan
Beethoven: Fidelio, Royal Opera House London, ab 1. März 2020
FIDELIO, Royal Opera House
To describe Tobias Kratzer’s provocative new Royal Opera production of Fidelio without giving away its surprises is impossible. So I suggest that those who like surprises don’t read this, but those who like explanations do.

Kratzer believes that Beethoven wrote not one opera but two. Act I, Kratzer claims, is a historical melodrama alluding to the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution (the ostensible Spanish setting, he says, was just a ruse to bypass the censors). Act II, however, is a timeless “political essay” challenging individuals of all eras to stand up to tyranny.

That’s exactly how the director stages it. The overture (with a grisly mime featuring freshly guillotined heads) and first act are presented impeccably in period style. A 1790s prison yard opens up ingeniously in Rainer Sellmaier’s design to disclose the domestic rooms where Amanda Forsythe’s Marzelline explicitly attempts to seduce Lise Davidsen’s strikingly tall, handsome Leonore, only to discover too much about the “man” she adores.

Thus, Marzelline becomes complicit in Leonore’s rescue of her husband, Florestan. You need to remember that later because it explains why it’s Marzelline who blasts out the famous trumpet call that saves Leonore and Florestan and shoots the evil Pizarro.

Before that, however, Kratzer has delivered his boldest shock. The curtain rises after the interval to reveal history swept away, and a modern-day audience gawping at Jonas Kaufmann’s chained Florestan writhing on a rock. What’s more, the faces of those spectators, projected in huge close-ups, increasingly upstage the “real” action.

At first they are only mildly engaged (one woman nibbles chocolate while watching), but the trumpet call rouses them, and they storm the stage to protect Leonore and Florestan. Kratzer’s message is clearly that each new generation must fight its own battle to preserve freedom.

Whether that’s also Beethoven’s message is debatable, and Kratzer doesn’t help his cause by mashing scenes together and interpolating texts from other dramatists to endorse his concept. So it’s a staging that irritates as well as challenges.

And the show’s musical values are similarly mixed. There’s utterly majestic singing from Davidsen and emotional intensity from an under-the-weather Kaufmann, but other voices are surprisingly nondescript. In the pit, however, Antonio Pappano conducts a fiery reading of the score, full of audacious tempos and rasping textures, that is as radical as Kratzer’s staging.

You never see a perfect Fidelio; it’s too problematic. At least this staging makes you think deeply, in Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, about the composer’s visionary intentions.

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