Vacant Fidelio

26 Sep

Yet another second-hand “new” production at ENO.  This time, after his 1990s Carmen of last year, we have a comparatively youthful Fidelio from Calixto Bieito – the production opened at Munich in 2010.  I saw the first night here on 25th September.

As a rule of thumb, I tend to think that where a production needs an explanation in the programme, there is likely to be something seriously wrong with it.  It suggests that the management is conscious that the audience may not “get” it and so we have to be helped.  That’s either insulting to the audience or an acceptance of the director’s incompetence to get his message across without assistance.  The programme for this production had two notes.  My heart sank.

We start with the Leonore No 3 overture and see a vast structure of platforms and pipes extending the whole height and depth of the stage.  It makes groups of compartments.  People climb out of the pit as the overture goes on and climb up and around the set.  After the overture, Leonore, whom we have seen binding her breasts, says some words and we begin with Marzeline’s aria.  There is hardly any dialogue – like Peter Sellars’s Magic Flute, we move from musical number to musical number.  I know the plot so well that I can’t tell whether this is problematic or not – I certainly think that the quartet needs more introduction.  The characters clamber around the set for no obvious reason.  There is no guard to usher in Pizarro.  The prisoners are in smart suits and carry pictures of, I think, Florestan.  The overwhelming feeling at the end of Act I was that I was watching a very remote concert performance with no dramatic impetus or interest.

At the beginning of Act II the set tilts back by 90 degrees – rather a beautiful effect, but one that takes far too long.  The scene in the dungeon moves slightly more traditionally – though Florestan, in pyjamas, bounces about like a caged animal rather than someone on the brink of death (I actually found that rather effective and moving).  He is dressed into the regulation suit in O Namenlose Freude and Leonore changes into a dress. After that, the Heath String Quartet is lowered in cages to play the slow movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 132.  Then a Stand and Sing finale (the set tilts back up again) save for a strutting periwigged buffoon of a Don Fernando, capricious and ineffective who goes round writing FREE on the cards that used to have pictures of Florestan on them.  He appears to shoot Florestan at the moment when he’s meant to give Leonore the keys to unlock his fetters, but since Florestan gets up, that might be because he was trying to shoot someone else, he missed or the gun was a fake.  I’m trying to work out why I should care.

Between them  the programme notes explain that Bieito “rejects a straightforwardly literal reading… in favour of one in which the psychological prison of each character is exposed and explored”.  He uses the Leonore No 3 to remind us of the different versions, that Florestan seems unstable and desperate at the end (actually, he didn’t) or that the extract from the quartet provides a period of reflection (on what?).  Apparently it contains many influences from Spanish cinema and writers, which is really likely to appeal to a London audience.  Frankly, the discussion didn’t help me enjoy or understand the production any more.

There.  You really now don’t have to go.

For me, this was the most tedious, vacuous and uninteresting Fidelio that I’ve ever seen.  Bieito’s vision to me said that people are alone, can strive and that everything can be negated by buffoon so you might as well not do anything.  For me Fidelio is one of those incredibly flawed, rewarding operas that are about the personal and the public, oppression, justice, freedom, ideals, love, compromise and humanity.  It gives almost unlimited scope for a director to explore these ideas particularly at a time when we are under surveillance as never before  and we see crimes against humanity as never before.  Bieito’s response to all of that is to ignore and to turn one of the great idealistic political operas into an internalised climbing frame.  A serious of vacancies waiting for an idea.

Enough.  I resent the time I’ve spent writing about this Emperor’s new suit already.

If you do go, you will be rewarded by a really excellent cast singing some of the clearest English that I’ve heard in this theatre in a long while (I couldn’t see the surtitles and barely needed them).  Emma Bell is a strong, heroic Leonore who seems entirely unworried by the musical demands and hurls her numbers out splendidly.  I hope that one day that she’ll find a director able to help her out with the warmth, the complexity and the passion of Leonore’s character.  Stuart Skelton made a Jon Vickers-like Florestan and sang ringingly and with considerable subtlety.  Sarah Tynan was a fine Marzeline, Adrian Dwyer a good Jacquino.  James Creswell was a powerful, believable Rocco.  I was less convinced by Philip Horst;s Pizarro –  rather anonymous, I felt.  Roland Wood  camped up Don Fernando exactly, I imagine, as the director intended.  The chorus was in marvellous form.

To my surprise, I didn’t much enjoy Edward Gardner’s conducting.  This felt like a dark, heavy reading as if weighed down by the unremitting dark, heaviness of the production.  Speeds felt slow.  I’ve never felt so uninterested or so uninvolved in the music.  The orchestra played pretty well.

Heigh ho.  Gardner will, I hope, have the opportunity to conduct with a different director and explore the piece further; this cast will find opportunities elsewhere to shine in this opera.  Other productions will come along and, with any luck, they’ll allow us to forget this empty evening.

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