05 Oct 2013

Fidelio, ENO

More than two centuries on, Fidelio may well remain the most misunderstood opera of all.

Irrelevant and downright stupid criticisms continue to be made of it, those voicing them apparently blind to what one would have thought the blindingly obvious truth that it not only represents, but instantiates the bourgeois idea of freedom at its most inspiring, apparently deaf to the symphonism of this most symphonic of operas, that idea of freedom explicitly expressed through the structural dialectics of Beethoven’s score.

What a relief, then, for ENO’s new Fidelio, a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, where it has already been seen, to be staged both as an expression and a deconstruction of that idea. Such problem as there were lay with Edward Gardner’s Harnoncourt-lite conducting, but Calixto Bieito’s imaginative, probing production offered one of those rare evenings in which a staging could more or less redeem a disappointing conductor. For that, of course, an often excellent cast should also share the credit.

Recent performances of Fidelio have tended to make a point of messing around with the work: re-ordering, new dialogue, and so forth. I have never quite understood why; the libretto is no literary masterpiece, but that is hardly the point, for it serves Beethoven’s purpose. Bieito — I assume this to be his doing — also makes changes; this was probably the first occasion on which I found the choices worth making, not as a blueprint for other performances, but simply as a valid performing choice in this particular context. Alarm bells would normally ring were a performance to open with the third Leonore Overture; even Daniel Barenboim, in a magnificent Proms concert performance, failed to convince that such was a wise move, the overture tending to overshadow, almost to render the opera unnecessary. Yet, following a blinding light and our first reading from Borges, the appearance of the pitiless, intermittently neon-lit labyrinth, a fine piece of design by Rebecca Ringst, not only sets up our expectations — the hopelessness of blind alleys and imprisonment for all concerned — but, in tandem with the overture in which Beethoven essentially presents a symphonic poem, both heightens and deconstructs those expectations. As an audience, also imprisoned in our different ways, we will the prisoners to escape, we begin to ask ourselves how we too might escape, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we already begin to appreciate that this will be a far tougher battle than Beethoven might ever have conceived. That the drama has in a sense been played out before a note has been sung and we have progressed not an inch is, or ought to provoke sober reflection. (The ridiculous booing form small sections of the audience, doubtless fresh, as a Twitter friend suggested, from the UKIP party conference, suggested, sadly if all too predictably, as another Twitter friend commented, that those most in need of the production’s message would never trouble themselves to heed it. At least, however, we can take a small degree of comfort from their discomfort.)

ENO-Fidelio_02.gifEmma Bell and Stuart Skelton

As ever, with Bieito, the craft of stage direction is exemplary; what we see is what he intends us to see. (Yes, this ought to be a given, yet all too often it is anything but.) I could not help but wonder whether survival of dialogue, not necessary all of it, might have aided understanding of who the characters were, but of course, as stated previously, the characters, such as they are, are really not the point in this of all operas. Borges and, on one occasion, Cormac McCarthy (as I learned from the programme) do sterling work instead: allowing us to think for ourselves, to make correspondences, rather than necessarily have our vision restricted to Guantánamo Bay, or wherever it might be (perfectly valid though that realistic approach may be). It is a pity that David Pountney’s translation veers all over the place: sometimes offering attention-seeking rhymes, sometimes curiously Victorian formulations, sometimes more present-day demotic. Yet even though it sounds in serious need of editorial attention, or better still rejection in favour of the German Beethoven set, there are phrases that stick with one, phrases that interact with the staging, to have us think. ‘Crimes against humanity’, a sadly everyday phrase in many respects: how could a London audience not think of a war criminal still very much amongst us such as Tony Blair? Bieito’s relative abstraction — unusual for him, and highly telling — permits the space for reflection, whilst listening to the progress of Beethoven’s drama.

It is that sureness of musical touch that perhaps permits ‘liberties’, which, when recounted in the abstract, might for some sound too much. Leonore III already used, we hear — this a real coup de théâtre in visual and musical terms — at the once ‘traditional’ juncture, music from, or perhaps beckoning us to, heaven, a Heiliger Dankgesang whose numinous qualities, for which, many thanks to the excellent Heath Quartet, suspended in cages from the ceiling, transcend the drama, question it, and are in turn questioned by it. Bieito undercuts all-too-easy expectations by introducing a sense of distancing already between Leonore and Florestan. And the caged musicians: are they a Stockhausen-like flight of fancy? Are they angels of Beethovenian mercy? Are they too imprisoned, sheltered from ‘reality’, whatever that might be? Are they, as the minority audience reaction would suggest, fated to be ignored, whatever the truth — so Beethovenian a word — of what they might attempt to express? We must think for ourselves, and tragically, an administered world, to borrow Adorno’s formulation, wishes to block them out, as sure as its gaolers wish us to think of opera as nothing more than entertainment.

Entirely unprepared as I was for that challenge to the musical work, provocative in the best sense, it made as full as conceivable an impact upon me. Likewise Bieito’s trump card in the final scene. Don Fernando makes his appearance as a stereotypical eighteenth-century ‘operatic’ character in a box above the stage. His increasingly bizarre and unpredictable behaviour, not to mention outrageous feyness, have us realise, both there and when he comes down to the stage, that rescue is not all that it is cracked up to be. Indeed, though we are told that it has happened — many of the prisoners are handed placards, personally signed, to signal their alleged liberation — we wonder whether that is just a trick, perhaps an ‘operatic’ trick. There is no doubting Beethoven’s sincerity, his greatness; that endures. But we also know that the administered world endures. The labyrinth does not retreat; it is simply, as New Labour would have had it, ‘rebranded’. Political action, whether individual or en masse, is both absolutely necessary and quite hopeless. Fate, or rather the forces of late-capitalist production, will find another way to trick us, in the manner of Don Fernando; his apparently ‘arbitrary’ shooting of Florestan, not slain but wounded, a truly shocking moment. And the return of blinding light has us appreciate anew the perils both of the cyclical and of all-too-easy identification of forces such as ‘light’ with progress.

The contrast between Beethovenian optimism, the sheer goodness of the score, and its staged deconstruction would of course have been greater still, had it not been for Gardner’s listless conducting. Often simply too fast — the main body of the overture but a single, albeit extreme example — the problem went beyond that; like Harnoncourt, the conductor seemed to have little or no ear for harmonic rhythm. Numbers did not extend beyond themselves; nor did that seem in itself a deconstructive strategy, more a matter of reductive domestification by default. To a certain extent, a grander canvas revealed itself during the second act, but structural concerns still went for very little. There is no one ‘correct’ way to conductFidelio: consider the success of such entirely different approaches as those of Furtwängler and Klemperer, or latterly, Barenboim and Colin Davis; but that does not mean that anything goes.We had, as I said, to rely upon the staging to accomplish double the work; almost miraculously, it accomplished something not so very short of that.

The singers’ accomplishment was also not to be disregarded. Stuart Skelton offered the finest Florestan I have heard since Jonas Kaufmann: powerful yet vulnerable, clearly committed to the ideas of both Beethoven and Bieito. If only he had not been harried by Gardner’s seeming desire to catch an earlier train home. Emma Bell was an impressive Leonore, her ‘Abscheulicher’ almost beyond reproach, though certain coloratura later on was skated over. More importantly, though, her identification not only with the role but with that all-important idea of freedom, shone through. Sarah Tynan proved an uncommonly excellent Marzelline, cleanly sung, vivacious, and equally committed in dramatic terms. Though Jaquino is a smaller role, Adrian Dwyer offered similar virtues when called upon. James Creswell was a likeable yet properly tortured Rocco. The only vocal disappointment was Philip Horst’s often lightweight Pizarro. Choral singing was of a high standard throughout: a credit both to the singers and to Aidan Oliver as chorus master.

Anyone, then, who cares about opera as drama, who believes that it is something more than expensive entertainment, needs to see — and to hear — Bieito’s Fidelio. Reactions will differ, but those willing to be challenged will find themselves properly inspired and unsettled.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Florestan: Stuart Skelton; Leonore: Emma Bell; Rocco: James Creswell; Marzelline: Sarah Tynan; Jaquino: Adrian Dwyer; Don Pizarro: Philip Horst; Don Fernando: Roland Wood; First Prisoner: Anton Rich; Second Prisoner: Ronald Nairne. Director: Calixto Bieito; Set designs: Rebecca Ringst; Lighting: Tim Mitchell; Costumes: Ingo Krügler. Chorus and Additional Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)/Orchestra of the English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, Wednesday 25 September 2013.