The Times, 04.01.2011
Neil Fisher
Beethoven: Fidelio, Bayerische Staatsoper, 21. Dezember 2010
Will Calixto Bieito's production be taken up by ENO, asks Neil Fisher  
Hands up: who misses Calixto Bieito? The iconoclastic Catalan director hasn't appeared in Britain since English National Opera last played host to his Don Giovanni, memorably labelled a "coke-fuelled fellatio fest" by one sensitive critic. But now Bieito is back perhaps. The Bavarian State Opera has confirmed that this new production of Beethoven's Fidelio is a co-production with ENO, although ENO is refusing to confirm whether it will ever reach London.

Bieito's production certainly isn't nearly as dynamic as his Don Giovanni though it is radical (boos mixed with bravos on opening night in Munich) and properly thought-provoking. Out goes any recognisable social context for the jailed Florestan and his brave, cross-dressing wife Leonore. In comes a space age labyrinth (stunning designs by Rebecca Ringst, ghoulishly lit by Reinhard Traub), inspired by a combination of Escher's worst nightmares and the Tron movies. Long before we hear from Jonas Kaufmann's ardently sung Florestan, we see him desperately jumping from platform to platform like a lab rat. But his jail is everyone else's, too. Personal, not political, freedom and what we choose to do with it is Bieito's powerful concern. That's how I saw it, anyway. But the devil's in the detail. Ditching the standard spoken dialogue, Bieito instead interpolates high falutin texts by Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy. It leaves the characters in a vacuum that Bieito struggles to fill convincingly.

Laura Tatulescu's spaced-out Marzelline spends the duration of the opera obsessively applying lipstick. Jussi Myllys's Jaquino makes several fruitless attempts to top himself. And the weakest link should be the strongest: Anja Kampe's Leonore, whose personal struggle is sidelined by the clanking set and increasingly agitprop antics that Bieito throws into the theatrical pot.

Stronger musical contributions might have sharpened these blunter edges. But Daniele Gatti conducted with ponderous and self-conscious gravitas, from a hearse-paced rendition of the Leonore III overture (here used to open the show) onwards. Strong contributions from Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch's black-voiced Don Pizarro and Franz-Josef Selig's Rocco go on the credit sheet, while Kampe's Leonore had an unsteady first half but rallied in the second.

The most striking episode, however, had nothing to do with Fidelio at all: the unorthodox interpolation of a section of the slow movement from Beethoven's Op 132 String Quartet in A minor, just before the final scene, played by a superb quartet of musicians lowered slowly from the flies. Maddeningly odd. Remarkably moving. And another reason why it's time to take the bad boy Bieito seriously.

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