The opera critic
by Moore Parker
Beethoven: Fidelio, Salzburger Festspiele, 4. August 2015
A Fidelio that is a shadow of its true worth
On paper, this Fidelio boasted an optimistic line-up as the third and final new opera production at this year's Salzburg Festival - expectations that however were to remain unassuaged as the final curtain fell.

Monumental in proportions, the sets in oppressive 19th century pomp, dominate a cast isolated within their individual cognitive dungeons, negotiating their paths through the storyline around the physical and symbolic obstacle of an enormous monolithic block which towers stage centre and later serves to reveal Florestan’s - and indeed humanity’s - self-imposed and inevitable necropolis. The block’s transformation into a gigantic crystal chandelier in the finale benefits none of the suffering protagonists below.

Clever lighting (Olaf Freese) creates powerful shadows which interact more intimately than their creators, while transporting a stark and barren message devoid of hope or redemption.

Claus Guth and his team proceed from their Salzburg da Ponte trilogy to Beethoven’s masterpiece with a familiar formula - an essentially black and white setting, plus the creation of additional “figures” to augment or represent chosen leading protagonists in their alter egos.

As polarised representatives of good and evil, Fidelio (Adrianne Pieczonka) and Don Pizarro (Tomasz Konieczny) are each doubled - the former’s “Leonore” identity is communicated via sign language by Nadia Kichler, while Pizarro is shadowed by a dancer (Paul Lorenger) who embodies both perpetrator and victim in mirroring the villain’s motives and failings. The result, however, is that both singers’ interpretations sadly suffer from the irritating distraction of the superfluous personae and their meanderings. All spoken dialogue has been replaced by a variety of sound effects (Torsten Ottersberg) - generally in the form of foreboding rumblings, occasionally mixed with breathing and other human utterances.

Despite evident intent, the overall impression remains static and leaden throughout the evening. Ultimately, this is a Fidelio which offers no salvation or element of joy - least of all for Florestan who is hopelessly traumatised, and who collapses and expires during the final bars of the opera.

Suffice to say that the production team was roundly booed from all corners of the house.

In contrast, it was conductor Franz Welser-Möst and his forces in the pit (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) whose accolades exceeded even those of the evening’s star vocalists - albeit also underscored by the occasional protest “boo”.

With a cast modest in power (the days of Nilsson and Vickers are no more) for this venue’s proportions, the pit (possibly raised higher than ideal) somewhat dominated rather than harmonised, occasionally at odds in tempo with the stage, and too often leaning toward alacrity and spectacle rather than poise - subsequently detracting from the customary detail and finesse for which this ensemble is justly famed.

Jonas Kaufmann shone out among the soloists with his intensely focused and musically rounded Florestan. His exemplary diction and legato paired with seamless dynamic control and negotiation of registers remain testimony to this artist’s technical prowess and considered execution, arguably now at the height of his powers.

Adrianne Pieczonka brings a certain noblesse to her Fidelio. However, her vocal delivery is somewhat erratic - with assets unquestionably in the role’s more lyrical moments, but with the score’s dramatic passages revealing duress which culminates in occasional intonation issues at the top of her range.

Konieczny presented an intensely snarling Don Pizarro, well articulated, and with comfortable vocal reserves.

Rocco, a grand and self-righteous capitalist with silver-topped cane is here left to despair of his avaricious fixation in the finale’s shower of bank notes. In his Salzburg debut, Hans-Peter König - vocally solid, if a shade lightweight in timbre - ideally suited the production’s concept in stature and demeanour.

Olga Bezsmertna brought lyrical ease to Marzelline, nicely complimenting Norbert Ernst’s even-scaled and suitably parched Jacquino.

Sebastian Holecek is a sympathetic - if atypical - Don Fernando, rather lacking in the ideal vocal sonority to crown the role’s aphoristic opportunity.

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