Express, Mar 11, 2020
|By WILLIAM HARTSTON
Beethoven: Fidelio, Royal Opera House London, ab 1. März 2020
Opera review: Fidelio at Royal Opera House
THE new production at Covent Garden of Beethoven's only opera
leavers a curious impression.
The first act is a total
triumph for German director Tobias Kratzer but the second act is, by
comparison, a misguided disaster. With Beethoven's glorious music performed
by a supremely talented cast, little more is needed, but Kratzer could not
resist the temptation to impose his own vision on the production and it was
not only unnecessary but proved a constantly irritating distraction.
The plot of the opera centres on the attempt of Leonore, superbly sung by
Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, to locate her husband Florestan who is a
political prison incarcerated in a deep dank dungeon. Leonore has disguised
herself as a young man and secured a job at the jail, but has run into a bit
of a problem because the prison governor's daughter Marzelline, thinking he
is a man, has fallen in love with him/her.
The original story was set
in the times of the French Revolution, but for political reasons it was
moved to Spain in Beethoven's original production. Kratzer has moved it back
to France and even cleverly changed the dialogue in places to make the story
even more convincing. This all makes great sense and with all the main parts
played very well, it made the first act a joy to see and listen to. The set
design by Rainer Sellmaier was also highly effective, with very slick
changes from one scene to another that avoided any slowing down of the pace.
Apart from the hugely impressive Davidsen, whose appearance as a male
was aided by her being the tallest member of the cast, US soprano Amanda
Forsythe gave an excellent performance as Marzelline while German bass Georg
Zeppenfeld was very impressive as the noble prison governor Rocco.
With the Royal Opera House Orchestra beautifully conducted, as always, by
Antonio Pappano, this was as near a perfect operatic experience as one could
hope for. The effectiveness with which Beethoven turns a solo into a duet,
then a trio, then a quartet and sometimes further, one's only regret was
that he didn't write more operas. Then came the interval and it all started
to go wrong.
For many in the audience, their main motive in coming
was to hear Jonas Kaufmann who is widely seen as the world's greatest tenor.
Before the start, an announcement was made that Kaufmann had not been well
and was still feeling under the weather, but was determined to appear, and
asked for the audience's understanding. That was not the problem, though,
for he sang beautifully when he appeared at the start of Act Two.
Normally, we see him then making his first appearance in the opera in a dank
dungeon cell. Kratzer, however, had the rather bizarre idea of having him
chained to a rock and surrounded by a well-dressed audience in comfortable
chairs. This quickly became worse as these prisoner-watchers were then shown
projected onto a large screen covering the back of the stage.
idea seemed to be that Florestan's anguish was not so much in being unjustly
held in jail, where he was being slowly starved to death, but in the way the
French people may have disapproved of his confinement but were very
accepting of it and not inclined to take any action. Having an audience
surrounding Florestan is a horribly heavy-handed way to show this and
projecting enlarged images of them onto a backscreen was appallingly
distracting when we only wanted to watch Kaufmann and listen to his amazing
Thanks to Beethoven, the first note that escapes his lips is a
long drawn-out cry of anguish to the word "Gott!" (God), gradually
increasing in volume. It is hugely effective, especially when performed by
someone with such superlative voice control as Kaufmann, and is really not
helped by having huge projections of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen
towering over him.
The only justification for this odd assembly comes
at the end when they turn into a mob celebrating the overthrow of the Reign
of Terror, but even that does not justify interrupting Jonas Kaufmann.
I do not think I have ever seen such initial promise of any production
followed by such disappointment. Watch the first act, then close your eyes
after the interval and listen to the second.