Fidelio: Two Operas in One

 SwitzerlandSwitzerland Beethoven: Fidelio, Chorus of the Geneva Grand Théâtre (Chorus Master: Alan Woodbridge) and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Pinchas Steinberg (conductor), Grand Théâtre de Genève, 10.6.2015 (AL)

Fidelio: Photo Credit Carole Parodi
Fidelio: Photo Credit Carole Parodi

Leonore: Elena Pankratova
Florestan: Christian Elsner
Rocco: Albert Dohmen
Don Pizzaro: Detlef Roth
Don Fernando: Günes Gürle
Marzelliine: Siobhan Stagg
Jaquino: Manuel Günther
First prisoner: José Pazos
Second prisoner: Romaric Braun

Director: Matthias Hartmann
Sets: Raimund Orfeo Voigt
Costumes: Tina Kloempken
Lighting: Tamás Bány

Fidelio is an amazing masterpiece that creates tremendous challenges for musicians: it is basically two operas in one. Act I is a quasi-Mozartean ensemble piece, whereas Act II anticipates Wagner. The ending is pure “undramatic” music as powerful as the Missa Solemnis or the 9th Symphony’s closing pages.

Few productions can meet the multiple requirements of the work, and even fewer can manage successfully the transitions between the different parts. This Geneva production was no exception. The lighter Act I was musically and dramatically done with talent and conviction, but when the work required more weight, the forces in place did not quite manage to meet the challenge.

The production team used the potential of the Grand Theâtre setting imaginatively. The work began in a pale, clinical, greyish light, but panels opened to reveal Jaquino’s control room full of modern computers and monitors, or the canteen of the jail with a kitsch Austrian Stübe feeling. The start of Act II, where Beethoven’s evocation of the pit in which Florestan lies was made palpable by slowly raising the stage and reducing the light, was a very impressive theatrical coup.

Mathias Hartmann was a generally capable director. Marzelline was effective in her rebuttal of Jaquino, and Rocco’s torn father figure was done well, but the director’s insistence on presenting Pizzaro as a cartoonish, maniacal figure was not at all appropriate and particularly confusing in the second act. The prayer ending before the finale was nicely done, but the glorious music was somewhat ruined by the director’s decision to have Florestan angrily throw Pizzaro’s speaking booth into the prison’s pit. Nothing in the words or the music called for such a gratuitous act, which surprised and, for many, ruined the atmosphere of the ending.

Musical matters were on a par with the staging. The dramatic characters were disappointing. Detlef Roth was having a very off day and was totally under-powered as Pizzaro. Christian Elsner was ill-at-ease in the demanding role of Florestan. His voice lost color whenever he was under pressure and was often off-pitch, reminding us too frequently how difficult this part is.

This, Elena Pankratova’s first Fidelio, was a promising one. Surprisingly, she was not fully comfortable in some places with the high notes, but she showed dramatic ability in the big moments and was careful and musical in the ensembles. It will be interesting to follow the Russian soprano as she increases her familiarity with the role.

Albert Dohmen’s sonorous and musical Rocco reflected the singer’s experience. Manuel Gunther’s Jacqino was pleasant and had a clear tenorial projection. Günes Gürle‘s Don Fernando was underwhelming. This is too often the case with this small role, but it is a real pity given the deep humanity of the music. Marzelline’s Siobhan Stagg was delightful: the Australian soprano has easy flowing notes and nice phrasing. It shows once again the Grand Theâtre’s ability to spot promising singers.

The Swiss Romande Orchestra was under the baton of veteran Pinchas Steinberg who was their music director in 2002. He was careful in the phrasing and drew strong playing from the woodwinds, but the orchestra, which is more attuned to the subtle colors of French music, was often caught losing power and color in the tuttis. The ensembles, however, were delivered with poise, and the support of the singers in the sublime quartet showed the musicians at their best.

So all in all, this was an unbalanced Fidelio, frustrating in its mistakes but with genuine moments of brilliance.


Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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