ENO’s Fidelio Bemuses and Lacks Soul

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera /   Edward Gardner (conductor),  London Coliseum, London, 25.9.2013. (JPr)

Pic credit ENO/Alastair Muir
Pic credit ENO/Alastair Muir

Leonore:  Emma Bell
Florestan:   Stuart Skelton
Don Pizarro: Philip Horst
Rocco:  James Creswell
Marzelline: Sarah Tynan
Jaquino: Adrian Dwyer
Don Fernando: Roland Wood
First prisoner: Anton Rich
Second prisoner: Ronald Nairne
Director:  Calixto Bieito
Set Designer:  Rebecca Ringst
Costume Designer: Ingo Krügler
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Translator:  David Pountney

In a review of Elektra in recent days I professed to begin to suffer a great deal from the conflicting memories of going to the opera over more than 40 years. I have never felt as old as I do now having experienced Calixto Bieito’s Fidelio – even though it is an entirely separate work to Beethoven’s Fidelio that I am reasonably familiar with!

Beethoven lived through the time of the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and – more significantly for him – the American and French ones. I suspect he was in favour of the ideals of both of these but would have deplored the loss of life that both involved. As Christopher Cook lucidly discusses in his programme note, the French revolutionary leaders encouraged a direction for opera towards telling the stories of heroes resisting oppression – they were called ‘rescue operas’ – and Fidelio is one of those. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, the 1802 letter to his brothers which was also reproduced in the programme, Beethoven writes about deafness, solitude and how he may never fulfil his artistic destiny. Following on from this, Fidelio could be considered a musical ‘testament’ by the composer of his personal philosophies about moral behaviour, human freedom and the struggle against oppression and corruption in society, as well as the faithfulness (possibly imaginary) of a woman – his ‘immortal beloved’. Just like the Heiligenstadt Testament a few ‘love letters’ were only discovered after Beethoven’s death in 1827. It took Beethoven almost 10 years to complete Fidelio and it encompasses everything he believed in and wanted to fight against.

Fidelio has its origins in a French libretto Léonora, ou L’amour conjugal and tells the story of Leonore, and her husband, Florestan, who is being illegally held in a prison. She disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, in order to get a job there in an attempt to save him. In its various versions, it went from three acts to two, its title was changed and it had four separate overtures. We are left with what should be something one step beyond Mozart’s masterpieces on the operatic road to Wagner. That it should be considered ‘proto-Wagner’ is also confirmed by that composer’s own fiction that he once saw the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Leonore when he was just 16! Whatever he saw her in first, she became his muse from then on and went on to create a number of roles for Wagner.

The curtain first went up in Munich on Calixto Bieito’s production in late 2010 with a cast that included a number of singers of true Wagnerian pedigree; as well as Jonas Kaufmann, there was Wolfgang Koch, Anja Kampe and Franz-Josef Selig. Here English National Opera – devoid of a depth of real Wagnerian talent – brought us a Fidelio that musically seemed to go back a generation and sounded like a performing edition by Mozart himself, lacking any of Beethoven’s heart, soul and courage that is so important to the score.

Bieito has excised most of the dialogue and replaced it with texts by Jorge Borges and Cormac McCarthy. Indeed it is some of Borges’s ‘Labyrinth’ we first hear beginning ‘There’ll never be a door. You are inside and the fortress contains the universe and has no other side nor any back nor any outer wall nor secret core.’ These are spoken by Leonore before she binds her breasts during the overture and becomes ‘Fidelio’ and helps set the ‘scene’. In Tim Mitchell’s glaring bright light we see Rebecca Ringst’s Perspex and steel art installation that is like an impossible maze from M C Escher; better used, this might have been quite appropriate for the essentially claustrophobic nature of Fidelio where the story is, itself, confined to a prison. When we finally hear the overture it was Leonore No.3, from Beethoven’s 1806 version of the opera, rather than the Fidelio one we are more familiar with from his final 1814 version that is otherwise basically the music we hear. Since it is the longest anyway, this overture outstays it welcome and it is unnecessary as it musically pre-empts, during its 15 minutes, much of what we will soon later hear. Also as it is goes on, characters – all in Ingo Krügler’s contemporary clothes – emerge from the pit and onto the stage and rush frantically around; if their appearance like this is symbolic of anything, it is the constant movement between light and dark throughout the ensuing work. We also see the trapped Florestan frantically trying to find a way out of his ‘cell’. This opening has a certain emotive power, but after this too little use is made of the maze/labyrinth during the rest of the opera forcing the cast to the front of the stage and into some more stock gestures because there seems little real personen-regie. The characters’ are given no motivation for their action and, in my opinion, the music is not enough – even if Bieito believes it is.

Yes I can accept the director wants to explore the independent psychological ‘prison’ of each character but I just did not experience this myself. Marzelline wants a man but it will not be Jaquino even though he assaults her at one point and another time is seen looking up her skirt from below. Rocco wants money and is handcuffed to a case full of it and Don Pizarro craves power. Pizarro is a self-harmer and sings his aria that is so full of fury with one arm round Leonore’s neck. She seems to have her own demons and rails against the venal society she finds herself involved with. She literally struggles with long ropes attached to this labyrinth in ‘Come, hope’ (‘Komm, Hoffnung’) and in the Prisoners’ Chorus she distributes pictures of Florestan’s face for them to pin to themselves. It is as though at any moment one of them might turn into her husband and Leonora would now be freed from the task she set herself.

With the labyrinth lowered into a horizontal position for the second act things seem more ‘natural’ and we also get more of the original dialogue than we had before. Despite singing about a vision of Leonore, Florestan is shown attempting to climb out of the labyrinth – he is clearly mentally scarred from torture, real or imaginary, and is scared of anyone’s approach. Leonore repels Pizarro by smashing a bottle of alcohol over the head and flings some acid in his eyes. Husband and wife are reunited though with rather less euphoria than usual and Florestan removes his ‘prison’ clothes and puts on a suit, Leonore changes her male disguise for a blue dress. After ‘O joy beyond all understanding!’ (‘O namenlose Freude’) they move away from each other as if Florestan does not want to leave his new ‘home’ and Leonore is not sure how much of her Florestan still remains. Then for the scene change that is usually accompanied by the Leonore No. 3 we heard earlier, the Heath Quartet descend from above and play an elegiac extract from the slow movement of the Op.132 string quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang. These are a few moments of respite and an oasis of repose from some of the other nonsense and a highlight of the evening for me – even though it has nothing to do with Fidelio.

The finale was a bit cluttered and confusing; Don Fernando arrives in one of the theatre boxes and is a perfumed and periwigged French dandy who (spoiler alert) despatches Florestan with a bullet. He seems to come back to life but his reunion with Leonore is only probably in her imagination and Bieito is telling us the society will continues to be as full of corruption and oppression as ever despite Fernando walking around, with what looked like a marker pen, writing ‘Free’ on some cards the prisoners have round their necks.

As hinted at above I didn’t enjoy the Fidelio musically either very much. Edward Gardner conducted his fine English National Opera orchestra with great care, finesse and attention to detail, yet every cherished phrase never revealed – for me – enough of the score’s intrinsic drama. In 35 years since my first Fidelio I have seen some very accomplished singers in this opera and will not give a catalogue of those; but none I heard at this performance will erase any of my past memories – however rose-tinted these might be! Sarah Tynan and Adrian Dwyer coped well with having to clamber about the labyrinth whilst singing their Marzelline/Jaquino duet, but despite accomplished vocal contributions theirs was a rather superficial relationship despite his attempt to rape her. James Creswell sang Rocco splendidly and gave him more dignity than he probably deserved – but another American singer, Philip Horst, was a rather unnecessary import with his under-projected Pizzarro. Horst was significantly outsung by Ronald Nairne’s Second Prisoner whilst Ronald Wood had great fun with Bieito’s idea for Fernando. Emma Bell’s Leonore had a Mozartian refinement and although she sang all the notes, her voice never had the heft, intensity or command this role needs. More suitably Wagnerian – and consequently inconceivable for Mozart – was the anguished heroic tenor voice of Stuart Skelton as Florestan although physically he is an unnerving doppelgänger for the comic actor James Corden!

My closing argument is that symbolic references should bear some relation to the work itself and when imposed upon it – as they are here – they only confuse and alienate an audience – despite Maria Delgado’s detailed critique of the production in the programme which not all will read before seeing the show. In fact, the first night audience received this Fidelio more with bemusement than any real enthusiasm. There are some striking visual moments, with much that is evidently thought-provoking, so it might be worth people going along and judging for themselves. But do not expect to see or hear a ‘genuine’ Fidelio.

Jim Pritchard

Fidelio performances continue until 17 October for further information visit www.eno.org.