France Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Ensemble Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon (conductor). Performed by Opéra Comique on 1.10.2020 at the Salle Favart, Paris, and livestreamed (directed by François Roussillon) on ARTE Concert (available until 30.9.2022). (JPr)
Stage direction – Cyril Teste
Sets – Valérie Grall
Costumes – Marie La Rocca
Lighting – Julien Boizard
Video conception – Mehdi Toutain-Lopez
Camera operator – Nicolas Doremus
Sound conception – Thibault Lamy
Dramaturgy – Leila Adham
Leonore – Siobhan Stagg
Florestan – Michael Spyres
Marzelline – Mari Eriksmoen
Rocco – Albert Dohmen
Don Pizarro – Gabor Bretz
Don Fernando – Christian Immler
Jaquino – Linard Vrielink
First Prisoner – Constantin Goubet
Second Prisoner – René Ramos Premier
Actors – Morgan Lloyd Sicard and Vincent Steinebach
When I saw and heard Kirill Serebrennikov’s new Vienna Parsifal earlier this year (review click here) I described his Konzept as having being ‘imposed on’ Wagner’s opera ‘rather than evolving from it’. It was a prison-based scenario and (for me) ‘incarceration and brutality ends in redemptive liberation’. I added how the ‘prisoners emerge Fidelio-like into a courtyard to exercise’. In fact, the sets and costumes could have easily been used for Beethoven’s famous 1814 opera and – to be truthful – it is basically what we get in Cyril Teste’s new staging for Paris’s Opéra Comique minus Serebrennikov’s ‘culture of tattooing’.
The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020 was – understandably – overtaken by events; through orchestras and opera houses are still apparently determined to give us their Fidelio and other programmes of his music which were postponed during the pandemic’s height, as these celebrations stagger on into a second (and third?) year.
The Opéra Comique’s own introduction helps us with the following about the opera’s connection to the French capital: ‘Fidelio’s libretto, based on a comic opera by [Jean-Nicolas] Bouilly and [Pierre] Gaveaux, met resounding success in Paris in 1798. Drawing inspiration from the Reign of Terror, a period of the French Revolution, this artwork inspired many composers. Beethoven turned it into an ode to justice and made it his philosophical legacy. At the end of a galant century and in the early days of a society founded on marriage, the marital love that was denied to Beethoven is at the heart of this drama. The composer worked on this opera for ten years, until it triumphed in 1814. Like Mozart, Beethoven had transcended singspiel’s form and language. More importantly, he had entrusted lyrical art with its true mission: the public. Rarely played in Paris, Fidelio finds an opera auditorium at the Opéra Comique that is very similar to the ones Beethoven knew back in the 1810’s.’ Also, how ‘Fidelio, is the male pseudonym adopted by the brave Leonore in order to undertake a dangerous mission: As a guard, she infiltrates a prison where arbitrariness reigns, to free her husband.’
As this Fidelio (with its slightly updated dialogue) begins much that we see on stage in Valérie Grall’s sets and Marie La Rocca’s costumes we have seen before: to a background of sound effects of a working prison, there are grey walls with seven cells stage right, an overhead bank of neon lighting, prison grilles, a basketball hoop, purple prison uniforms with DPP (Detention for Public Protection) and their weaponised security officers in black. There are also seven small upright video screens which are mobile and come together and separate during the opera as the characters are followed by – the increasing familiar figure of – a video camera operator (Nicolas Doremus). Apart from some pre-recorded footage we are given reaction close-ups from the principals, as well as what can be occurring behind the screens themselves and elsewhere. This immerses the audience totally into Teste’s production but may have worked better on my TV screen than it did in the Salle Favart.
During the scene-setting overture there is a handcuffed prisoner (we recognise as Florestan) who is beaten and kicked as we watch Leonore (we assume at this point) cutting her hair short, donning a plain gold necklace (we will learn is her husband’s) and with a black cap transforming herself into Fidelio. From his office Jaquino, who is one of the prison guards, is watching all the CCTV of the inmates whilst Marzelline – with whom he appears to be in an abusive relationship – enters (in simple skirt and slacks) with a trolley with boxes of books, suggesting she is the prison librarian first, general dogsbody second. Her father Rocco is chief warden and he has plans for her to marry Fidelio. Rocco is seated for his gold aria while we see the prisoners stripped of their money, jewellery and any other possessions worth something. Rocco offers some of it to Fidelio who refuses, though Jaquino accepts what he’s offered. Marzelline oversees a (now) drinks trolley for the arrival of the prison governor, Don Pizarro, who bribes Rocco to finish Florestan off (he has been secretly imprisoned because he tried to expose the governor’s crimes). Rocco shows his conscience by handing the money back and we will watch as he becomes increasingly conflicted about what he is asked to do. Fidelio persuades him to let the prisoners (some in orange beanies) out into the courtyard for some recreation. The joy of this makes them reminisce on happier days as from somewhere come eight gambolling children, though the First Prisoner’s daughter will later get forcibly removed. A stage-deep grille descends to separate the prisoners from their children who Rocco soon ushers away. Pizzaro angrily returns to put an end to the prisoners’ basketball and is ready to summarily execute the First Prisoner (an eloquent Constantin Goubet) until Rocco convinces him their small amount of freedom was for the king’s name day.
Wearing an orange jumpsuit, we hear Florestan’s ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!’ (‘God! What darkness here’) with him in silhouette against seven brightly lit panels! [Spoiler alert] Florestan will be strapped to a surgical bed ready to be despatched by lethal injection. The vengeful Pizzaro arrives to provide the coup de grâce but is thwarted by the sound of the arrival of the prisons’ minister Don Fernando. Leonore/Fidelio threatens Pizarro with her gun but is too easily disarmed and eventually takes up the camera (the glare of public opinion?) before forcing him out. Florestan is eventually freed but it seems an inordinate time before he pulls out his cannula. The chorus of townspeople who celebrate their renewed hope for justice are in the aisles of the auditorium before a suited and bemedaled Fernando announces the end of tyranny at a microphone. [More spoilers] Pizarro is arrested, wives and girlfriends get together with their loved ones, Leonore unlocks Florestan’s handcuffs, Marzelline is happy to reunite husband and wife, the children rejoice too as the guards lay down their weapons and prisoners shed their purple clothing to be piled up. The paean of praise to the loyal Leonore ends everything in rousing fashion.
Musically there were more positives than negatives. It sounded through my TV as if it was rather small-scale Beethoven, in the smallish venue with a probably smaller than we are used to Pygmalion Ensemble chorus and orchestra. Raphaël Pichon appeared to conduct with care and attention to dramatic detail, there were no longueurs and two hours flew by. He was not entirely supported by all his musicians and I especially worried whenever the horn section was called upon. The chorus did their best in the circumstances but the ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ needed to make a more visceral impact.
I had never encountered Siobhan Stagg before a recent Glyndebourne concert (review click here) where she impressed me enormously and confirmed my initial impressions here with her gamine Leonore/Fidelio. I read how she had missed performances earlier in the run and suspect she was still not entirely at her ease, notably during the demanding ‘Abscheulicher! (‘Monster!) and ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ (‘Come, hope’) when she used Florestan’s necklace to chain her hands together. What was not in doubt is that Stagg has a cultured soprano voice and is a consummate actor and we believed all her character’s faithfulness and love for Florestan, as well as her fears and anguish over his possible fate.
Apart from Florestan (more about him later) the other singers seem to have had their roles rather diminished by Teste’s production; Jaquino (Linard Vrielink) and Marzelline (Mari Eriksmoen) were mere cyphers and neither voice seemed particularly large, though both were extremely characterful, with Vrielink mostly aggressive and Eriksmoen clearly besotted by Fidelio. Albert Dohmen’s bluff and rather charmless – in demeanour and voice – Rocco was not a bad man and was clearly obeying orders he was not happy with. Gabor Bretz’s Pizarro chewed the scenery somewhat and was evil incarnate; bitter, twisted and overtaken by his need to have Florestan murdered. Don Fernando was the consoling voice of reason, finally dispensing true justice and bringing a community back together. The grizzled bass-baritone Christian Immler is an alumnus of London’s Guildhall School of Music (I hired him for a Mahler Society concert in 2002) and he sang authoritatively.
Best of all was the Florestan of Michael Spyres with his tenor voice of heroic proportions. His opening long-held ‘Gott!’ swelled from a suitably quiet beginning with thrilling effect and from then on Beethoven’s tumbling text – notably in the radiant love duet (‘O namenlose Freude!’) – and high tessitura held no fears for Spyres. Acting convincingly, he took his character from the depth of despair at his brutal treatment, isolation and imminent death to bring a genuine sense of elation to the final scene.