The New York Times, AUG. 7, 2015
Beethoven: Fidelio, Salzburger Festspiele, 4. August 2015
Review: A Divisive 'Fidelio' Draws Boos at Salzburg
SALZBURG, Austria — What's a summer at the Salzburg Festival without at least one opera production that provokes vociferous booing on its opening night? That requisite rite took place here on Tuesday, at a new staging of Beethoven's "Fidelio," when the German director Claus Guth and his production team appeared during curtain calls at the Grosses Festspielhaus.

The hostility from the audience was clearly directed at Mr. Guth and his partners. The conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who led the great Vienna Philharmonic in a transparent and majestic account of Beethoven's score, won a huge ovation, along with the excellent singers, especially the two leads. They are the astonishing tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who makes a wrenching, haunted Florestan, a Spanish nobleman unjustly jailed by the ruthless governor of a state prison for espousing principles of liberty the opera leaves vague, and the compelling, bright-voiced soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Leonore, Florestan's tenaciously loving wife. She has disguised herself as a man (Fidelio) and secured a job in the prison where she suspects that her husband is being held —hoping, somehow, to rescue him.

Mr. Guth makes a good point that a prestigious festival should foster "nonnormative" approaches to repertory work, as he argued in an interview included in the program. "Fidelio," long thought a great, profound yet problematic opera, invites experimentation.

One problem involves its stretches of rather stilted spoken dialogue. Mr. Guth presents "Fidelio" as a psychological exploration of the idea that we all live within self-devised prisons. That dialogue impedes his concept. So he has simply eliminated it, replacing the libretto's spoken lines with recorded sounds by the sound designer Torsten Ottersberg: subdued rumbling, industrial creaks and clanks, moaning and breathing. During these stretches, the singers either act out the story silently, or stand around trying to look absorbed in thought.

Of course, that dialogue has a purpose: to convey crucial details of the story. Mr. Guth assumes that what's going on comes across anyway. But the actual sounds are dull, like snippets from some faceless sci-fi film score. All that moaning and groaning is more cliche than the usual spoken exchanges.

The intriguingly abstract set is by Christian Schmidt, who also designed the costumes. He places the opera in a large, eerie room, with white wood walls and a tiled floor, suggestive of Freud's salon of the unconscious, Mr. Schmidt said in the program. Now, an abstract "Fidelio" set in a dream space could have been interesting.

But the philosophical generalization driving this concept bothered me. Maybe we are all trapped in psychological prisons of our own devising. Yet Florestan's story does not fit into this contrivance. Two years of unjust solitary confinement and near-starvation represent a horrifically real trap.

Leonore, in Mr. Guth's concept, lives in a constant state of internal debate, in which her persona as Fidelio struggles to communicate with the woman she actually is. This idea is turned theatrical by having Ms. Pieczonka followed around by Leonore's Shadow, an invented silent character (Nadia Kichler), who communicates through physical gestures, like sign language for the hearing-impaired, a heavy-handed touch that winds up seeming glib. The villain, Don Pizarro (the sturdy bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny), has a shadow, too. So, rather than settling for yet another traditional "Fidelio," with actual chains and dungeons, what is Mr. Guth's experimental innovation? He trots out doppelgängers.

The supporting characters seem diminished by this Freudian production, even though the roles are strongly cast, with Hans-Peter König as Rocco, the weak-willed jailer; Olga Berzsmertna as his daughter, Marzelline, who falls for the "man" she knows as Fidelio; and Norbert Ernst as Jaquino, who pines for Marzelline.

Another strand explored in this staging works better: that during periods of separation, people in love struggle to retain images of each other, and that prison, the worst separation, can change you. This concept conies alive in Act II, when we see Florestan in prison, mostly because Mr. Kaufmann gives such a courageously vulnerable performance. During Florestan's great soliloquy, Mr. Kaufmann's voice is burnished and penetrating, his singing anguished and poignant. You sense remnants of dignity in this wretched man, even as he thrashes about like a caged animal, all wiry limbs and spastic twitches. Later, when he realizes that his rescuer, young Fidelio, is his wife, he is too crazed to take it in and recoils from her touch.

In the final scene, the townspeople sing Beethoven's chorus of joy over the liberation of the prisoners and the vanquishing of Pizarro. Mr. Guth keeps the choristers out of sight as they sing from the wings on the sides of the orchestra pit. So when the celebratory choral singing starts, Mr. Kaufmann's Florestan freaks out: He thinks he's hearing things.
It's an intriguingly dark take on this scene. Still, I missed hearing the music as Beethoven conceived it, with a full chorus onstage, trading jubilant phrases with the reunited husband and wife. In any event, Mr. Guth ruins his own effect by having Leonore's annoying shadow grab attention at the front of the stage, making exaggerated sign signals to the audience.

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