Sunday Times, December 26 2010
Hugh Canning
Beethoven: Fidelio, Bayerische Staatsoper, 21. Dezember 2010
Opera’s bad boy bored them silly
Calixto Bieito is known for shocking audiences, but a muted production of Beethoven's Fidelio provoked only apathy in Munich - Fidelio: directed by the man responsible for two of ENO’s most controversial shows (HO)  
For the second time this year, I have attended an opera production announced as a co-production with English National Opera that we may or may not see in London. The first, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Elektra from last summer’s Salzburg festival, we definitely won’t. And a question mark hangs over the new Fidelio, which opened at the Bavarian State Opera, in Munich, last week, directed by the Catalan enfant terrible Calixto Bieito, the man responsible for two of ENO’s most controversial shows of the decade: a Tarantino­esque Don Giovanni and A Masked Ball (Verdi) equally fixated on sex and violence, which notoriously opened with a group of conspirators sitting on lavatories. Nudity — yes, that old chestnut — was always part of the Bieito shock factor, but there is precious little to be seen in his Munich (and possibly ENO) Fidelio: a glimpse of Anja Kampe’s midriff as she bandages her covered breasts to make her look like a boy in a silent prologue before the overture, and a dekko at Jonas Kaufmann’s torso as he changes his elegant prison pyjamas for a natty suit and waistcoat.

Fidelio caused Beethoven considerable grief until he settled on a final version in 1814, 10 years after its premiere; and, despite music of transcendent beauty and moral uplift, it remains a problem work, especially in the German-speaking world. Joseph Sonnleithner’s and Friedrich Treitschke’s libretto, at least its spoken parts, is no longer taken seriously.

At least Bieito avoids the new clichés of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, but whether he penetrates the heart of Beethoven’s masterpiece remains questionable. Like most modern directors, he can’t resist tinkering with the text and music. In place of the once familiar, now rarely heard, original spoken dialogue, we have self-consciously interpolated texts by Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy, which serve only to underline the opera’s dramatic flaws. With Leonore III as overture, he chooses an abridged version of the molto adagio from the Op 132 String Quartet in A minor for the “scene-change” music in Act II.

The designer Rebecca Ringst has created a visually stunning set. Two steel and glass platforms conjoin to form a 3D puzzle, and one up-ends spectacularly — to applause that unleashed a counter-volley of boos — to create a labyrinth from which the principal characters struggle to escape like laboratory animals. It all looks very Vorsprung durch Technik, but it is clinical and cold. I’ve rarely been less moved by Fidelio.

Only in the static finale does Bieito strike a provocative note by portraying the Minister as the Joker, from Batman, a chaotic figure emerging from the theatre’s royal box. I was expecting hailstorms of protest at his curtain call, but, apart from a few isolated boos and counter-cheers, the audience response was muted.

Like the Salzburg Elektra, it looks way too big and technical for ENO resources

So too, was Daniele Gatti’s conducting. At his return to the pit for Act II, he was rudely greeted by some, but at the end he seemed to have bored all but one or two of the protesters into apathy with his attenuated tempi and contrived gear changes. Kampe and Kaufmann are probably optimum casting for Leonore and Florestan today, but both sounded stretched in the Nationaltheater (of comparable size to Covent Garden).

Choral singing and orchestral playing were of the high standard that one expects in Germany’s most important opera house, and that is always a pleasure to hear.

Will we see this production soon at the Coliseum? Like the Salzburg Elektra, it looks way too big and technical for ENO’s resources, and my attempts to ascertain when it might be heading to St Martin’s Lane were fobbed off by the press office with an official statement: “This production is part of the long-term artistic partnership between John Berry [ENO’s artistic director] and Nikolaus Bachler [Munich’s intendant] that ENO announced in April this year. Simon Bocca­negra, which opens on June 8, 2011, will then transfer to the Bayerische Staatsoper.” I didn’t ask about Simon Boccanegra, but never mind.

ENO needs to answer questions about how much money it is investing in “artistic partnerships” that subsequently get nixed. In times of cuts and austerity, Berry’s shopping list ought to be closely scrutinised by the Arts Council.

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