Czech Republic Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The National Theatre / Andreas Sebastian Weiser (conductor), The Estates Theatre, Prague, 18.10.2018. (RP)
Leonore – Melanie Diener
Florestan – Daniel Frank
Don Fernando – Jiří Rajniš
Don Pizzaro – Sebastian Holecek
Rocco – Oleg Korotkov
Marzelline – Felicitas Fuchs
Jaquino – Václav Lemberk
First prisoner – Sergej Smirnyj
Second prisoner – Alexander Laptěv
Stage Director – Vera Nemirova
Sets and Costumes – Ulrike Kunze
Dramaturgy – Sonja Nemirova, Jitka Slavíková
Musical history was made at Prague’s Estates Theatre. Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni there in 1787, and Beethoven hoped that Fidelio would be produced at the theater. Its Prague premiere did indeed take place there in 1814, conducted by Carl Maria von Weber, who was dismayed at the cool reception the opera received. Gustav Mahler would lead later performances. The National Theatre’s current production, based on the 1814 version, premiered in September 2018.
The Bulgarian born, German-based director, Vera Nemirova, sets the action in the present but sticks to the plot. The first two acts are staged in a hyperrealistic manner: the stark gray walls of the prison are alleviated only by dirty translucent doors where family and friends await a rare glimpse of the prisoners. They emerged from their subterranean hold in their underwear, wrapped in blankets, placing their clothes and shoes in neat piles on the ground. Florestan’s subterranean cell is even bleaker. The white furniture and the subdued red and blue dress of Marzelline were the only respite from the gloom.
The realism evaporated when the trumpeter announcing Don Fernando’s arrival arose from Florestan’s intended grave. His appearance prompted laughter, a pointless, incongruous moment of comic relief that passed quickly. The general rejoicing with which Nemirova staged the finale also fell flat. It would have been a far more powerful ending if she had reined in the merrymaking and played it straight. There were no such qualms, however, with the musical values of the performance led by Andreas Sebastian Weiser.
Soprano Melanie Diener was a formidable Leonore, stoic and determined. Tall and statuesque, she was convincingly masculine in her drab, shapeless attire. To the extent any soprano can sail though ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’ she did so, while keeping her gleaming soprano under check. Despite some muffed horn playing, it was an impressive performance of the fiendishly difficult aria. In the later ensembles, she threw caution to the wind and her voice bloomed. Diener was a Leonore as heroic in voice as she was in spirit.
Daniel Franks’ biography describes him as ‘one of the most interesting Wagnerian tenors of our time.’ There’s a ring of truth to the claim, as the former Swedish rock singer and drama teacher who began his operatic career as a baritone has a voice that demands attention. The role sits comfortably in the rich middle of his voice, but in the higher dramatic passages he sang with reckless abandon, pushing it to its limits. His Florestan was obsessed with the papers piled in his cell that prove the perfidy of Don Pizzaro, his nemesis. He undergoes a catharsis when he rips some documents in pieces and throws them to the floor, but this Florestan emerged from captivity a victorious yet shattered man.
Don Pizzaro, sung by bass-baritone Sebastian Holecek, was a thug. Holecek snarled out his aria, ‘Ha, welch ein Augenblick!’, savoring the opportunity to eliminate his rival in a booming voice as black as his character’s soul. Bass Oleg Korotkov’s Rocco, his jailer, was a far more complex being. There was a lightness to his first act aria, during which he engages his daughter Marzelline and the disinterested Fidelio (Leonore) in a game of chance; dispensing money as well as fatherly advice that a marriage needs more than love to succeed. An opportunist with highly honed survival skills, Rocco refuses to kill the prisoner but consents to dig his grave.
Soprano Felicitas Fuchs was a charming, full-voiced Marzelline. She and her father seemed bewitched by the intensity and purpose of the mysterious interloper. It was impossible for her to let her suitor, Jacquino, portrayed by Václav Lemberk, down softly; his frustrations mounted to the breaking point. Their lives had been uprooted by Leonore’s cunning and determination to rescue her husband, and this production left the situation unresolved. Lemberk was a fine addition to the cast, as was the exciting young baritone Jiří Rajniš as Don Fernando.
In the intimacy of the Estates Theatre, the opening scenes of the first act, where the singing is interspersed with dialogue in the Singspiel style of the German musical theater of the day, were particularly vivid. The dialogue was crisp and clear, seamlessly merging with the music.
With singers of such impressive vocal endowments, Weiser had no restraints in terms of dynamics. Sergej Smirnyj and Alexander Laptěv began the Prisoners’ Chorus with haltered voices, but robust sounds would have been incongruous. Musically, the performance was a triumph.
Fidelio is a timeless opera. Prison abuses are still rampant around the world, and people suffer gruesome deaths at the hands of political operatives. Beethoven must surely have hoped for better. That’s not the case, and Vera Nemirova’s production drove the point home.