This new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio by German director Tobias Kratzer, is a work of two distinct acts. The first act is set in the reign of terror following the French revolution, emphasised by a tricolour on one side of the stage. This setting gives context to the desire of the prison governor Don Pizarro to engineer the death of his most significant prisoner, Florestan.
In the second act, we are in an international court with the chorus as witnesses observing the misery and impending death of Florestan in prison. Close-up video shows the chorus’s distance from events, as they eat and drink, while Rocco the prison warden and his assistant Fidelio (in reality Florestan’s wife Leonora) dig Florestan’s grave. This and other incidents, like Marzellina’s Act One attempt to become physically intimate with Fidelio, spoil an otherwise intriguing production of an opera dealing with universal human rights and the corruption of power. In the end, the chorus witnessing the intended prison murder goes on the attack, coming to the front of the stage and bringing the opera to a close.
Kratzer is a master of original ideas, with a strong comedic streak, as his Tannhäuser at Bayreuth last summer showed. Highly original and utterly hilarious in parts, the audience loved it. But this Fidelio production did not work so well, and some in the audience were sufficiently irritated by the Act Two antics to boo the production team at the end. Kratzer’s modifications to the libretto caused no offence, but the bright lighting in Act Two and the banalities in the staging upset what should be the universality of the repression and abuse of power that Beethoven was expressing.
Musically, however, this opening performance in the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth was a resounding success under the baton of music director Antonio Pappano. His conducting brought out a tension and excitement that can sometimes drag in other hands, and Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen (pictured, above left) made a simply outstanding Fidelio, full-toned, firm and with a Wagnerian ability to soar above the orchestra. As Rocco the prison warder, Georg Zeppenfeld (pictured, above right) was another Wagnerian who can carry far heavier roles than this, and he sang superbly, his calm authority and uprightness suiting the role to perfection. Amanda Forsythe, as his daughter Marzellina, was a delight, and in the last moments of the opera Latvian bass Egils Silinš made a fine vocal presence as the government minister whose arrival prevents the intended murder.
As Florestan’s nemesis Don Pizarro, British baritone Simon Neal, who sings mainly in Germany, was excellent, and it is only a pity that Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan was not at his best. Having missed the dress rehearsal through illness he was not yet quite back to form, though he will doubtless be in better shape for the live cinema relay on March 17.
In what was otherwise a wonderful musical performance, the German production team has misjudged its British audience — as is so often the case.
Performances continue until March 17, which will be live screened to cinemas — details here.