Financial Times, March 02, 2020
Richard Fairman
Beethoven: Fidelio, Royal Opera House London, ab 1. März 2020
Lise Davidsen is outstanding in the Royal Opera’s Fidelio
In conceiving a political opera, Beethoven took the art form into new territory. It would be a generation before anybody else followed. His heartfelt cry for justice for political prisoners resonates as powerfully now as it did in his own time.

This year marks Beethoven’s 250th anniversary and Fidelio is a key work in arguing how relevant his music still is. The Royal Opera has stepped forward to present a new production, cast with stars new and established — young Lise Davidsen as Leonore and Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan — and conducted by music director Antonio Pappano. The controversial element will be Tobias Kratzer’s production, which asks the important questions and challenges our conscience on the same political issues today. If only it did not get tangled in some directorial meddling on the way.

In the role of Leonore, the woman who heroically rescues her husband, we have a symbol of hope for a better future, and many opera-goers are probably feeling the same way about Davidsen. Gifted with a big voice that is beautiful and expressive, she will surely be the outstanding Leonore of the next generation. She already compares with the best of the past, less daredevil than Anja Silja, but more flexible and moving than Birgit Nilsson.

In the first act, she steps into a prison at the time of the French Revolution, imagined here with oppressive gloom by designer Rainer Sellmaier. In these claustrophobic period interiors, Robin Tritschler’s modest Jaquino courts the very light-voiced Marzelline of Amanda Forsythe, neither of them helped by the extra dialogue added by Kratzer to flesh out their relationship. Georg Zeppenfeld brings his keen bass voice to a businesslike Rocco and an intermittently potent impression is made by Simon Neal’s Don Pizarro, a monster swathed in silk elegance. We know he is a rotter because he throttles Marzelline’s pet canary.

From there the production makes a huge leap in period and style. Kratzer sees Fidelio as an opera of two halves and the rest is performed as if at a modern concert, where the choir members look on in increasing discomfort as the 19th-century characters enter and play out their drama before them. Should they intervene? Can today’s bystanders take up the flame of justice, like those before?

The concept is good, but the denouement is bungled (do we really need Marzelline accidentally turning up as the saviour?) and the advocacy of a strong cast is tested. Kaufmann was announced as unwell, but a Kaufmann at half throttle is better than none at all, and he was welcome as always for his musicality. Pappano, in charge of an orchestra on heat, never let the intensity sag and Egils Silins sang eloquently as a Don Fernando who emerges from the chorus as a spokesman for the conscience of the 21st century. There is a clear and strong message inside this production struggling to get out. It could yet come back in future years as a powerful show, albeit too late for Beethoven’s anniversary.

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