Opera North’s Beethoven and Janáček in Salford

Beethoven, Janáček: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, The Lowry, Salford Quays. 17-21.5.2011 (RJF)

Ludwig Van Beethoven : Fidelio. (1814). Sung in German with English titles.

Leos Janáček (1928): From the House of the Dead . Sung in English with English titles

I would normally expect to review any production reprised from the previous season, particularly involving cast changes in the major roles as with Carmen on this occasion. However, given my caustic criticism of the production when first seen in April, I did not feel it appropriate to do so on this occasion as I could not see how the new singers could do justice to themselves in a production that had such little respect for the work in its normal totality and for Bizet’s music (see review ).

For its ‘new production’ of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, Opera North imported the sets and production first seen at Scottish Opera in 1992 and refreshed by Tim Albery. They also imported that Company’s sometime Musical Director, Sir Richard Armstrong, to conduct it. The updated costumes, merely allow for the intrusion of automatic rifles and an ugly looking pistol for Leonore to deter Don Pizarro in his intention to kill Florestan. Stewart Laing’s sets could have been largely from any period except for the decor of the opening scene. This consisted of two small open ended shoe boxes, one on top of the other, each with a small window with bars across – the opera is set in a prison, after all. Of these two small cells, the upper one was used as Marzelline’s bedroom. It was largely superfluous being used by her to simply put her ironing away, and no more. The lower of the two, painted a vivid yellow, was the family dining room and the location of the action and activities of the first scene. Its small size not only inhibited movement, but also had the major disadvantage of distorting the singing voices – at least in my seat towards the rear of the stalls. This possibility is something the experienced and normally dependable producer, Tim Albery, should have picked up. The sound in The Lowry can be very variable according to seating and I found the set and my seat affected Rocco in particular in this respect, as he spent most of his time in this important scene at the back of this room as the nature of the relationships between himself, his daughter Marzelline, his assistant Jaquino and Leonore evolves. Add lighting that cast unwanted and distracting shadows and the whole impact of the opening with its complex relationships was lost. Scenically matters did improve as Act One preceded. The scene depicting the release of the prisoners, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains illuminating their words of entry into light, was particularly effective and provided a meaningful stage picture.

In the orchestral opening to Act Two we had a brief glimpse of Rocco and Leonore descending a ladder as the sets opened to reveal a three-division cell into which they entered at one end and where the grave was to be dug. At the other end Florestan was asleep. The middle formed the locale for Leonore’s thwarting of Pizarro’s intention to kill Florestan. Other fairly speedy scene changes were slickly achieved by raising a half curtain or with sliding walls.

Armstrong’s Act One overture was distinctly underpowered and somewhat over-lyrical until the closing bars when he whipped some drama into his tempi and volume. This final overture of Beethoven’s four attempts was written more or less contemporaneously with his Symphony No 7 and there are distinct relationships between the two. Listens to Carlos Kleiber’s account of the symphony and imagine what brio was missing in this flaccid orchestral introduction to the drama; the weight given to the overture by Klemperer in his audio recording gives a direct comparison. Elsewhere, particularly in the introduction to Act Two, Armstrong found more colour and atmosphere in the music. I am sure Opera North Musical Director Richard Farnes would have done Beethoven’s music better justice. However, he cannot do everything and as I note below his command of orchestral textures had even greater need in the Janáček work on offer in this season.

As to the singing in the Fidelio performance, the male quartet took the honours. The last time I heard Fidelio, the tenor signing Florestan cracked on the vocally demanding opening Gott! Welch Dunkel Hier and did not recover for several bars (see review). The American tenor, Steven Harrison, lyric in tone had no such trouble and sang with strength and good expression throughout. A pity he looked too well shaven to have been a badly treated long-term prisoner; lessons from Ryan Giggs on designer stubble are called for. In the lesser and lighter tenor role of Jaquino, the tall Joshua Ellicott sang well and acted the thwarted suitor with conviction. Jeremy White was a tower of vocal strength as an avuncular, if morally equivocal, Rocco. As the baddy of the story Andrew Foster-Williams gave a formidable sung and acted portrayal, his bespectacled demeanour sent a chill down my spine whilst his declamation, even at forte, was first class.

In the title role, Emma Bell was a convincing looking young man. A pity she did not have long hair to let down as she revealed herself as Florestan’s wife. I do not think her voice has yet the vocal tone, or heft, for this role. Too often as she tried to put more tone into her words, the voice developed a hollowness whilst her Abscheulicher was distinctly choppy. Fflur Wyn shows Marzelline’s inner turmoil better than she conveys it in her voice; there is more to come from her in the future I think.

All in all this Fidelio production and set showed as many weaknesses as strengths. I am even more sorry than before that this opera has taken so long to reach mainstream Opera North repertoire. Whilst the Company have tinkered about with American trifles and obscure Russians and the like, the neglect of this work by one of the greatest composers has done them no credit. In the present economic climate the chance of a worthy production conducted by Richard Farnes is a vain hope. A pity.

In the performance of Janácek’s posthumously staged last operatic composition, From the House of the Dead Richard Farnes did justice to the melodic (perhaps not the correct term), but at least the complexities of the composer’s music. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel set in a Siberian prison camp the work can be considered incomplete seemingly having no plot. It is not in the Russian tradition of episodic opera but rather an incoherent set of situations reflecting the lot of people who find themselves in a brutal regime and with no hope. In the first two parts the sets were simple, the lattice bars at the front of the stage rising to reveal the interior prison; with the torture chamber in which Goryanchikov is beaten being flown.

In the second half, titled Winter Night, I failed to come up with any explanation, in either the music or the so called plot, for having the singers, particularly Robert Hayward as Shishkov stuck up a ladder for his long declamatory exposition. Were the ladders there to represent the prisoner’s hope of escape to freedom? Whatever the explanation and the limitations of the fragmentary plot, there were notable sung achievements among the soloists in conveying the emotions of the characters and giving some coherence to the goings on. Along with Hayward, Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts and Alan Oke are worthy of mention. Claire Wild as the abused Alyeya was also notable whilst Roderick Williams’ strong tone and well acted Goryanchikov promised some legato that the music and plot did not.

Robert J Farr