Opera North’s stripped-down Fidelio commemorates Beethoven’s 250th

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Streamed live (directed by Peter Maniura) from Leeds Town Hall, 12.12.2020. (JPr)

Closing moments of Opera North’s Fidelio

Staging – Matthew Eberhardt
Narration – David Pountney


Leonore – Rachel Nicholls
Florestan – Toby Spence
Rocco – Brindley Sherratt
Marzelline – Fflur Wyn
Jaquino – Oliver Johnston
Don Pizzarro – Robert Hayward
Don Fernando / Narrator: Matthew Stiff
Prisoner 1 – Stuart Laing
Prisoner 2 – James Davies

It is only right that Opera North should want to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with his only opera and it is appropriate that it was livestreamed within a week of the actual date (17 December). However, this is now my third Fidelio during these pandemic-blighted times (as Vienna’s recent Tosca will be my fifth one, with another possible next month). All performances at the moment are to be treasured and more critic-proof than usual.

I unapologetically repeat what I have written before about Fidelio and how it is Beethoven’s sublimely simple story about the struggle for political liberty, a faithful wife’s bravery, and the triumph of the human spirit. There is a problem with Fidelio and that is because it is part-Singspiel – think Mozart’s The Magic Flute – with both song and dialogue; part-opera seria; and part-rescue opera. Regardless, all its themes should resonate more than ever in 2020 with our current freedoms severely restricted by governments and tinpot local politicians – for some good or some rather dubious reasons – interfering in our lives in previously unimaginable ways.

The dialogue is always a problem: at Covent Garden last season (review click here) director Tobias Kratzer even added more text, whilst for Garsington Opera’s recent Fidelio (review click here) there was none at all. Opera North used a surprisingly anodyne narration from David Pountney read by Matthew Stiff as the Minister of State, Don Fernando. He gave us the CliffsNotes from ‘The logbook of the jailer Rocco’, ‘Jacquino’s report’, ‘Interrogation reports’ etc. to set the next scene. Once again, it became mainly a ‘numbers’ opera and it all zipped along which is a credit to those involved. It was described as ‘a dramatic concert performance’ though social distancing obvious does not allow for much drama as the most the singers often did was turn towards each other. During the Act II love duet ‘O namenlose Freude!’ Leonore (in translation) sings ‘I’m holding you in my arms again’, yet she was much too far away from Florestan out in front of her. There were no props – apart from Rocco writing in his ‘logbook’ – so there was very little genuine drama in Matthew Eberhardt’s staging. Since nearly everyone was in mostly black rehearsal clothes and not that well lit did not help either. For Rocco it was a particularly comfy looking black cardigan which contrasted with Don Pizzaro’s grey suit and striped tie and Don Fernando in his judicial gown.

The singers sat on chairs across the platform in front of a reduced – and spaced apart – orchestra (33) and a chorus (totalling only 24) themselves spread out across the raked choir seats behind them. We see Leonore/Fidelio removing her wedding ring during the overture before we launch straight into Act I with the Jaquino/Marzelline duet, Marzelline’s aria, the quartet, Rocco’s ‘gold’ aria, a trio, march, Don Pizarro’s ‘vengeance aria’, and so on. Eventually there is a trumpet call – here sounding hauntingly Mahlerian – which heralds our hero and heroine being saved by Don Fernando leading to the final rousing chorus (‘Wer ein holdes Weib errungen’) with its celebration of Leonore and ‘all magnificent women’. This is Beethoven’s vision of how love and justice can triumph in the end and envisions – rather optimistically – a future world that is much fairer for all.

It was odd that as soon as Oliver Johnston and Fflur Wyn began their duet as Jacquino and Marzelline I wondered what the concert would be like with them singing Florestan and Leonore, and I thought this more and more as the opera went on. Johnston’s voice was not particularly light, though for the lovelorn Jacquino it was suitably ardent. Wyn sang Marzelline’s ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’ very appealingly with a soprano voice that was refined and lyrical: not only was her coloratura totally secure but her singing was very warm throughout. Wyn clearly expressed how Marzelline had led such a sheltered life within the prison compound that she is unable to recognise the ‘man’ she loves is actually a woman in disguise! Brindley Sherratt is an experienced Rocco who negotiated his role with great skill, near perfect diction, and the sonorous bass notes it demands. Undoubtedly, he was venal but also paternalistic and a reluctant accomplice to the sinister prison governor Don Pizzarro’s revenge-fuelled machinations. Robert Hayward brought considerable dramatic authority to Pizzarro as he vehemently – and venomously – harangued Rocco into doing his bidding. Possibly the best of the deep voices was Matthew Stiff shaking of his duties as narrator to bring some regal authority to Don Fernando and thereby make the best of what little he eventually got to sing. Because he was quite exposed in the small male chorus of 16 during the radiant prisoners’ chorus (‘O welche Lust’) Stuart Laing made a distinct vocal impact as an eloquent First Prisoner.

Opera North’s Fidelio: Opening of Act II

This is the second time I have heard Toby Spence sing Florestan. He has undoubtedly a very nice voice but – whether I am right or wrong – I would like a more heroic voice to make ‘Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier!’ the cry of anguish it needs to be. Florestan is bemoaning his likely fate while putting his trust in God that Leonore may yet come to save him. Here, Spence was sitting on a stool that itself was on a plinth and in front of the other singers like a museum exhibit; he was also luridly lit making him look jaundiced. Spence’s background is as a choral scholar and his approach was as if Fidelio is an oratorio. To be fair, the role is fiendishly demanding – it has challenged many of the greatest heroic voices I have heard in the past – and Spence clearly found it equally hard going the more he had to sing.

Rachel Nicholls as Fidelio/Leonore produces a resonant voice from a slight frame and benefitted from not being overwhelmed by a full orchestra. Her soprano sounded a little unwieldy as Nicholls exclaimed ‘Abscheulicher!’ and ‘Komm Hoffnung’ was sung with studied care. Leonore clearly tested Nicholls’s vocal stamina and her tone became slightly shriller towards the end of the opera. On the plus side it was clear that Nicholls was totally involved with the ‘arc’ that her character goes through.

Well-supported by the accomplished Orchestra of Opera North, Mark Wigglesworth’s account of the score was light-textured, restlessly intense, and totally gripping with all the set pieces grandly done. One of the highlights of their musical performance was the bleakness of the prelude to Act II with wonderful solo contributions from clarinet, flute, and leader David Greed’s violin. The choral finale was as noisy and joyful as you would expect and showcased the terrific singing of the chorus that may have been small in number but were valiant nonetheless.

Jim Pritchard

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