United Kingdom Dallapicolla, The Prisoner and Beethoven, Fidelio (Act II): Soloists, WNO Chorus, WNO Community Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Lothar Koenigs (conductor). Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 14.6.2019. (GPu)
Production (for both works):
Director – Sir David Pountney
Set Designer – Misty Buckley
Costume designer – April Dalton
Lighting designer – Mark Jonathan
Video designer – Hayley Egan
Chorus master – Andrew Greenwood
The Mother – Sara Fulgoni
The Prisoner – Lester Lynch
The Gaoler/The Grand Inquisitor – Peter Hoare
First Priest – Huw Evans
Second Priest – William Stevens
Fidelio (Act II)
Florestan – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Leonore – Emma Bell
Don Pizarro – Lester Lynch
Rocco – Wotjek Gierlach
Jaquino – Ossian Bowen
Marzelline – Carly Owen
Don Fernando – Daniel Grice
I don’t know whether this particular pair of works has previously been produced aa a double bill. Once I had seen it proposed, it struck me as such a good idea that I found it hard to believe that it hasn’t been done before. I would be interested to know if it has. In performance it certainly proved – with a few reservations – its value as an idea.
The idea doubtless came from the newly knighted (congratulations!) David Pountney. Obviously both works (Dallapiccola’s opera and Act II of Fidelio) feature an imprisoned man and the possibility (or otherwise) of his liberation. Both are, in effect variations on the ‘rescue opera’, and therefore related to works such as Cherubini’s Lodoiska (1791) and Paer’s Leonora (1804) or a later work such as Smetana’s Dalibor (1868). But, as Pountney suggests in his programme essay, ‘the premise of a “rescue” which leads its protagonist from darkness to light goes all the way back to Orpheus, and pre-dates any political context’. But, of course, in both literature and opera there are variants of the Orpheus narrative – it is only in some versions that he actually succeeds in making it back to the daylight with his wife Eurydice. In Fidelio it is a wife (Leonore) who enters the underworld (the prison) to try to rescue her husband and succeeds in doing so. In The Prisoner there is no escape, only the delusion of its likelihood. Dallapicolla’s own libretto for The Prisoner has its chief sources in the story ‘La torture par l’espérance’, one of the Nouveaux contes cruels (1888) by Count Philippe Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Charles de Coster’s novel La légende d’ Ulenspiegel (1868); the anonymous prisoner of the opera is tormented by the possibility of escape and freedom – as the result of a supposed revolution – planted in his mind by the Gaoler, before the prisoner is finally despatched to the flames of the Inquisition. Fidelio, on the other hand, ends with Florestan freed and a massive chorus which triumphantly celebrates the release of Florestan and other prisoners.
Like the two previous productions in WNO’s current FREEDOM season, this double-bill was semi-staged using the same bare, raked stage used in the preceding performances of Dead Man Walking and The Consul, with a raised gallery at the rear. Again, the orchestra was at the rear of the stage, with most of the action taking place in front of it and, on this occasion, to the left of the orchestra as we looked at the stage. In both The Prisoner and Fidelio an isolated metal cage, identically placed, served as the cell of the anonymous Prisoner and Florestan (I thought of Ezra Pound in his exposed cage at Pisa). Act II of Fidelio began, of course, with Florestan in this cage; at the end of the opera, when Don Fernando has arrived and decreed the release of Florestan and other prisoners, Pizzarro was placed in the now empty cage, rather than simply being taken away by guards, as more often happens in productions of Fidelio. Such an ‘arrest’ at least suggests the possibility that he may undergo some kind of legally justice. Placing him in the cage seems to imply that having, as Prison Governor, exercised what the anonymous 1864 English translation of the opera’s libretto by Sonnleithner and Treitschke called ‘arbitrary power’, Pizzaro will now be subjected to similarly arbitrary power. It seems, that is, that the liberation of Florestan and the ‘freedom’ celebrated in the opera’s joyous closing chorus may only be the prelude to more repressive government. The ironies were compounded here by the fact that Lester Lynch who had sung the role of the Prisoner in Dallapicolla’s opera also took the role of Pizzaro. Like a film shown continuously in the cinema, the conclusion of Fidelio ‘prepared’ the way for the beginning of The Prisoner.
Lynch gave an outstanding performance as the Prisoner; a formidable stage presence, he sang the role with great power and expressivity. One believed in his fortitude and (if one knew the opera) sympathised with him as he was duped by the Gaoler. The Prisoner had opened with a fine impassioned account of the Prologue by Sara Fulgoni – singing about as well as I have ever heard her. No great vocal feats are required of the Gaoler, but Peter Hoare invested the role with sufficient menace (even while seeming to offer the Prisoner some comfort) that even those in the audience who had no previous knowledge of the story might well have been suspicious of his honesty. Hoare also convinced as a smug, disturbing Inquisitor at the opera’s close. As a work originally written for (and performed on) radio, The Prisoner has no need of elaborate staging and retained all its power in this semi-staged production. When, almost half a century ago, I was a postgraduate student, I became fascinated by Dallapicolla’s Il prigionero when I heard a radio broadcast of it (it must have been on the Third Programme as it then was); fortunately I taped the broadcast and was able to listen to it several times more. My early admiration for Dallapicolla’s ability to fuse ‘Germanic’ serialism with Italian lyricism to such beautiful effect has stayed with me ever since and I was profoundly grateful for this (infrequent) opportunity to hear (and see) the opera live.
Act II of Fidelio is pretty much self-contained, but anyone in the audience who didn’t know the opera must have been a little perplexed by the appearance of Marzelline very late in the act and wondered quite what her significance was. One a deeper level it is undeniable, I think, that without seeing Act I’s exposition, with its ‘domestic’ scenes, such as Marzelline ironing and with its revelation that poor Marzelline has fallen in love with Leonore in her masculine disguise, as well as Rocco’s stress on the need for money if he is to let her marry Fidelio (the disguised Leonore), we lose a good deal of the context for the events of Act II, even if its narrative arc remains clear. Emma Bell was a fine Leonore, her voice and diction ringingly clear, her voice strong without forfeiting grace of line. I regret to say that I don’t warm to Gwyn Hughes Jones as much as many do, or, indeed as much as many in the audience did to judge by the reception he received at the curtain. Though he has a voice of genuine substance, he seems still to lack that art which conceals art – something which the very best singers have. As a result, I am always more conscious of his singing than of the character he is representing. His Florestan I found too often rather stiff and inflexible, both vocally and physically. He clearly possesses a very decent voice, but unfortunately struggles to use it to its best effect. I hope I am not being unfair to him – but I can only write as I find. Lester Lynch commanded the stage as Pizzaro, though his voice, not surprisingly, showed the effects of some of the considerable demands made on it by The Prisoner. Wojtek Gierlach imbued Rocco with some plausible humanity and sang attractively. Though there was much to enjoy and to admire in this partial Fidelio (especially in the work of Emma Bell), it certainly lost more than The Prisoner from being only semi-staged.