Innovative Fidelio May Not Be to All Tastes

SwitzerlandSwitzerland   Beethoven: Fidelio  Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Conductor: Fabio Luisi, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 8.12.2013. (JR)

The Minister:   Reuben Drole
Don Pizzarro:   Martin Gantner
Florestan:   Brandon Jovanovich
Leonore:   Anja Kampe
Rocco:   Christof Fischesser
Marzelline:   Julie Fuchs
Jaquino:    Mauro Peter
1st prisoner:    Alessandro Fantoni
2nd prisoner:   Christoph Seidl

Conductor:   Fabio Luisi
Director:    Andreas Homoki
Sets:   Henrik Ahr
Costumes:    Barbara Drosihn
Lighting:    Franck Evin
Video:   Alexander du Prel
Chorus:   Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy:   Werner Hintze

I thought I had arrived at the opera two hours late. For the curtain on this new production of Fidelio goes up not to the strains of the Leonore III overture or the Fidelio overture but the second part of scene from Act II where Leonore reveals she is not a young man but Florestan’s wife, only to get shot (and presumably killed) in the mêlée. The singers then depart and we hear the final part of the Leonore III overture.

This new production is the first much-vaunted joint collaboration between Music Director Fabio Luisi and ZurichIntendant Andreas Homoki; expectations therefore ran very high.

The programme note admits that Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio is not a homogenous work; Beethoven had great trouble writing it and in was, initially, not a success. Even today it can come over as a strange hotchpot of recitative, grand opera and oratorio, the dialogue being too long and segmenting the music mercilessly. So Luisi and Homoki had an idea: remove all the dialogue entirely and simply string all the music together. A complete Fidelio in under two hours (with no interval to disturb the flow). Musically, it certainly works; dramatically it’s sometimes difficult to digest. If you had never seen the opera before, and had no time to read the synopsis before the performance, you would have been utterly lost, despite each character having his name and role displayed in giant characters on the back screen as they came on.

The set and costumes did not get in the way: they were uniformly monochrome. The prison and the cell were plain grey, the back wall rising and falling as the prison gates were opened. The costumes were modern, the prisoners wore grey suits unless revealing their long johns to hail the spring sunshine. Quite why Leonore had to run around in the stage during the opening scene in her underwear remained a mystery.

Musical interest focused on the much-heralded American tenor Brandon Jovanovich in his role debut as Florestan; the volume of his opening “Gott!” could have filled the Met several times over, seemed a mite overdone for the small Zurich house. Volume continued to impose itself over lyricism throughout, but the notes were certainly all there.

Anja Kampe as Leonore did not impress as much as she did with her Senta in this house recently (nor as Sieglinde, I am told, in Bayreuth), though she has great power and presence; she was rather squally at the very top, but admittedly Beethoven is generally considered unkind to voices and Kampe found it taxing – her lower and middle registers are however very fine and perhaps most suited to the Wagnerian roles she has sung and has in her sights.

Don Pizzarro was very well sung by Martin Gantner (the admirable Beckmesser in the recent Meistersinger here); perhaps not looking as evil as one might have wished. Christof Fischesser as the jailor Rocco is a wonderfully sonorous bass (a recent Sparafucile here) and the role suited him well. Almost stealing the show (and garnering the sole bouquet) was Julie Fuchs as Marzelline; a charming and well-projected voice. She is a new ensemble member in Zurich and certainly destined to progress.

Marco Peter sang a forthright Jaquino; stalwart Ruben Drole sang an impressive Minister though he looked wrongly clad in his dinner jacket and seemed 30 years too young.

The male chorus was magnificent, full-throated throughout.

Fabulous is almost an anagram of Fabio Luisi; and he was.  A veritable whirlwind in the pit, revelling in Beethoven’s stream of melodies. The orchestra was on top form, especially the entire horn section and principal oboe accompanying Florestan’s aria.

Which brings us to the end of the opera which held a further mystery in store (at least for me): in the libretto Florestan and Leonore live happily ever after. But in this production the prisoners disperse to reveal Leonore lying motionless on the floor, presumably dead.

Reception to the production was mixed. Whilst not as radical as Calixto Bieito’s recent production for English National Opera, Homoki’s upset the old guard whilst simultaneously delighting the modernists, those like me who found old performances of the opera too long-winded and newcomers to the opera (as long as they had done their homework).

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment