Ft.com, 16. August 2010
By Shirley Apthorp
Beethoven: Fidelio, Lucerne, 12. August 2010
Fidelio, Lucerne Festival, KKL, Lucerne
Eros is the theme of this year’s Lucerne Festival. And though it would be hard to imagine a less erotic opera than Beethoven’s Fidelio, it was this that opened proceedings last Thursday evening in a lavish semi-staging conducted by Claudio Abbado.

If there is sensual gratification to be found in this piece, this was the cast to find it. And indeed, when Jonas Kaufmann began Florestan’s first cry of despair with crooning softness in the darkness of the KKL concert hall, you could feel the hairs stand up on the audience’s skin. Kaufmann let the note blossom into virile fullness, and hurled himself at his opening aria’s rows of tonsil-tangling top notes with suicidal abandon. Not even he could make this aria sound effortless, but at least it was thrilling.

With Nina Stemme as Leonore, Falk Struckmann as Pizarro, and Christof Fischesser to provide the startling revelation that the role of Rocco can sound sexy, it would be hard to imagine a more vocally voluptuous Fidelio. Add an augmented Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with its transparent strings and biting brass, and Abbado to round every curve, and you have all the elements for a definitive interpretation.

But somehow, it was a performance that seldom rose from tear-inducingly beautiful to knuckle-whiteningly exciting. Part of the problem lay in Tatjana Gürbaca’s semi-staging. The decision to infuse some dramatic action into this concert performance was made just six weeks before the opening. Perhaps time was too short to allow for the evolution of a solid concept.

Stefan Heyne’s sets involved a truckload of military greatcoats and a giant white balloon, moodily illuminated by Reinhard Traub and occasionally enlivened with video projection. It looked like a noble attempt at profundity. Gürbaca moved singers through rudimentary blocking, hampered by their need to sing from the score. It worked well enough to see that semi-stagings in the KKL might have a future, but not so well as to convince.

Can Fidelio, with its ravishing ensembles and limping dramaturgy, ever work as music theatre or will it always remain a utopia just beyond our reach? Lucerne’s production asked more questions than it answered but the process certainly proved pleasurable.

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