Dialogueless Fidelio Lacks Clarity Despite Good Individual Performances

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (5) – Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, 13.8.2015 (MB)

Salzburger Festspiele 2015/Ludwig van Beethoven/Fidelio/Premiere am 04.08.2015/Musikalische Leitung:Franz Welser-Möst/Inszenierung:Claus Guth/Bühne und Kostüme:Christian Schmidt//Jonas Kaufmann:Florestan Copyright:Monika Rittershaus
Salzburger Festspiele 2015 Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan
Copyright:Monika Rittershaus

Florestan – Jonas Kaufmann
Leonore – Adrianne Pieczonka
Don Pizarro – Tomasz Konieczny
Rocco – Hans-Peter König
Marzelline – Olga Bezsmertna
Jaquino – Norbert Ernst
Don Fernando – Sebastian Holececk
Leonore’s Shadow – Nadia Kichler
Pizarro’s Shadow – Paul Lorenger
First Prisoner – Daniel Lökös
Second Prisoner – Jens Musger

Claus Guth (director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Torsten Ottersberg (sound design)
Andi A. Müller (video design)

I shall start with the good news. It will not take long. Yes, no surprises here: it was Jonas Kaufmann. Kaufmann may not have been able to save the day, but his Florestan proved almost as impressive as it had in Paris more than six years ago (review). Perhaps I am being unfair or unduly cautious when I say ‘almost’; it may just have been a matter of a less than exalted setting, or simply an inability on my part to relive the thrill of hearing Kaufmann’s portrayal for the first time. Whatever the truth or otherwise of that, there was nothing for which I could fault him. His baritonal tenor seems just right for the role, but what he does with it – and it seems that he can do anything he wishes – is still more breathtaking. As I wrote in 2008, ‘He exhibited a heroism to rival that of Jon Vickers, albeit without the vocal oddness.’ There can be no arguing with his acting abilities either. Called upon to portray an apparent descent into madness, quite at odds with the text, such of it that remained, let alone with Beethoven’s score, Kaufmann marshalled all of his artistic resources to powerful effect.

What else? Hans-Peter König’s Rocco, after a somewhat indistinctive start, grew in humanity. The Two Prisoners made their mark well, and the chorus proved well-trained. Otherwise, there was little to inspire. Admittedly, Adrianne Pieczonka improved as time went on; Kaufmann’s presence seemed to lift performances, at least onstage, across the board. However, her tone was often harsh and her intonation was at best variable. Olga Bezsmertna’s Marzelline was blowsy, and Tomasz Konieczny’s Pizarro undistinguished, lacking even pantomime malevolence. On its own terms, the Vienna Philharmonic played well enough, but it was impossible for me to assent to those terms.

For that, Franz Welser-Möst was squarely to blame. Beethoven surely stands as the antithesis of mediocrity, but Welser-Möst proved quite unable to raise his game. At his very best, he sounded like a poor man’s Toscanini – a rich man’s is bad enough – but this was uncomprehending stuff indeed. Proceeding phrase by phrase, sometimes even bar by bar, there was not a hint of a longer line, let alone of the indomitable spirit with which this most noble of operas is infused. The orchestra was brash, harsh, often entirely lacking in tonal variegation. Chugging replaced development. The absurdly-inserted Leonore III Overture – a great conductor can just about get away with that regrettable ‘tradition’ – was an ordeal such as Florestan himself might have had to endure. The audience, bafflingly, gave it a rousing ovation. Still more bafflingly, conductor and orchestra stood to take their bows – yes, in the middle of the second act. How frustrating, then, to know that the greatest living Beethoven conductor, Daniel Barenboim, was also in town.

And yet, there was worse. I approached Claus Guth’s production with an open mind. On the face of it, ridding Fidelio of its dialogue seemed a bad idea – is the dialogue really so bad? Why cannot people simply leave it alone? – but perhaps it might have worked in practice. It does not. I am pretty sure that, had I not known the opera, I should have had no idea whatsoever who anyone was or what he or she was doing. Fidelio without the dialogue is at best an interesting concert; that, however, would require at the very least a conductor up to the task. Worse, still, however is the Konzept which replaces Beethoven’s. Instead of a call to humanity, we had something one might just about dignify with the term ‘existentalist’. It is all, apparently, about freeing oneself from the imprisonment of one’s own mind. Or, as Norbert Abels declares in the programme, admittedly in translation, ‘In an ever-shrinking world of universal enmeshment, of the transcontinental interconnectedness of the globe, of the unlimited procedures of saving and monitoring data, Beethoven’s opera still navigates as the utopia of man’s escape from his self-inflicted imprisonment.’ Shorn of its verbiage, that might conceivably prove a fruitful addition to what we have already; as a replacement, it simply smacks of modern self-indulgence. ‘Fidelio,’ according to Abels, ‘is usually interpreted as a salvation and liberation opera with a political background.’ It is hardly ‘interpreted’ as such; it straightforwardly is that, and this is not a work that seems especially amenable to perverse reinterpretation. Whilst Guantánamo, Gaza, all manner of other actually-existing prisons, still exist, indelible stains upon humanity, is it acceptable to suggest that the solution is simply, to ‘find ourselves’? Weird sound effects punctuate the movements: presumably the workings of the unconscious. Or something. If they are intended to terrify, they sadly fail; they are not nearly loud enough. Instead, they merely irritate. Invoking Freud is not enough; it never was.

Claus Guth justifies himself, again in the programme, by disingenuously claiming that Beethoven’s revisions leave us with an ‘indefinite, indeed open form’. For some unspecified reason, the Salzburg Festival ‘in particular, offers us a place to open a space for non-normative ideas where we are able to experiment as if in a laboratory.’ All very well, if they work, but they do not. Instead, we have especially crass references to Beethoven’s deafness thrown in, a woman, Leonore’s ‘shadow’, frantically using what appears to be sign language, Florestan covering his ears in agony, and a banal narrative of personal self-discovery (I think, in Leonore’s case) superimposed upon the opera to no good effect. I shall leave the last word to designer, Christian Schmidt: ‘On our quest for a place for the events, we tried … to avoid any clarity.’ Quite.

Mark Berry

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