David Lang’s contemporary re-take on Fidelio fails to convince at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom David Lang, prisoner of the state (European premiere): Soloists, BBC Singers, Students from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 11.1.2020. (CC)

Jarrett Ott (The Prisoner), Alan Oke (The Governor) Julie Mathevet (The Assistant)
(c) BBC/Mark Allan

The Assistant – Julie Mathevet
The Prisoner – Jarrett Ott
The Governor – Alan Oke
The Jailor – Davóne Tines

Elkhanah Pulitzer (director)

It is a brave act, indeed, to take the skeleton of a masterpiece – Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio – and provide a contemporary re-take, shaving off anything extraneous in the plot. But that is just what David Lang, composer and a co-founder of Bang on a Can, has done here, in a work that attempts to re-imagine Beethoven’s work for our times. The title of Lang’s work is taken from a line from Leonore, the original version of Fidelio. This is certainly ambitious. And while on an immediate level there are dramatic moments in prisoner of the state, the resultant package hardly packs a punch. Part of the problem is Lang’s musical language, heavily indebted to John Adams’s style of minimalism but, frankly, frequently dramatically flat as a pancake.

Lang first saw Fidelio at an early age, in his early twenties, and found the piece full of unanswered questions. These questions caused him to see how the work could relate to the here and now. He takes the original libretto, intending to concentrate on the husband/wife relationship, and the relationship of the prisoner and prisoners to the state. The text, by Lang himself, includes snippets from other sources to illuminate the trajectory, including Rousseau (the final section paraphrasing ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains’), Hannah Arendt and Jeremy Bentham. prisoner of the state was premiered in New York in June last year.

The opera beings with an aria for ‘The Assistant’ (Fidelio/Leonore in the original) – ‘I was a woman once’. It tells us much of what we need to know, some of which is about about the character herself, but also much about Lang. The music skirts on musical theatre, a trait that recurs several times during the temporally short evening; there was no interval. I say ‘temporally short’ as clock time can be a very different thing to experienced time, and the piece did feel substantially longer than its clock duration. The lack of directionality was partly to blame, in tandem with the low inspiration, both polar opposites to Beethoven’s realization. The overall sound created by Lang is, appropriately enough for an opera set in a prison, dour and gray. Incidentally, one can hear the Assistant’s aria with the excellent Julie Mathevet, who took the role at the Barbican, singing (click here).

Anyone who knows Beethoven’s opera cannot but fail to see the references, and therefore find comparisons which are doomed to failure. An aria about gold maps to Rocco’s ‘Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben’, but instead of Rocco’s worldly-wise raised eyebrow one gets a character on the verge of depression, resigned that ‘someone else will get the power and the love’ without currency. Florestan’s great Act II aria, ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier’ becomes ‘So dark’, similarly beginning with a cry from the heart but with none of the intensity.

A male chorus is seen behind a gauze, and at one point the opera lists examples of the reasons that the inmates have been imprisoned (taken from an 1805 list of offences for which English prisoners could be transported to Australia). Trivial things, of course, which only makes their situation worse. The male voices of the BBC Singers, augmented by members of the Guildhall, were in fine voice.

The stark staging reflects the oppressive nature in its iconography. This is more of an installation space, in Elkhanah Pulitzer’s own words. The orchestra remains on stage, in the same space as the characters. That oppressiveness is perhaps musically reflected in the Governor’s aria ‘Better to be feared than to be loved’, one of the more poignant moments.

There are two large boxes on either side of the stage, with a central channel enabling characters to move from the back of the stage to the front. One of the boxes, it turns out, holds the Prisoner, whose face is projected onto the gauze as he sings, one of the most successful moments of the evening. Like all of the soloists on this occasion, Jarrett Ott’s Prisoner was a triumph. Claron McFaddon was originally intended to sing the role of the Assistant, but Julie Mathevet, who sang in the original New York premiere run, was superb both as an actor and vocally, her voice shot through with strength. The real star vocally, though, was Davóne Tines, his terrifically dark-hued Jailor commanding the stage. The voices were amplified. There was no doubt whatsoever of the excellence of the chorus and the orchestra.

This performance of prisoner of the state was part of the Barbican’s celebrations of Beethoven at 250. The series continues with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO in a programme of Beethoven and Berg on 19 January.

Colin Clarke

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