Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

A Merry Falstaff in San Diego

On February 21, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s last composition, Falstaff, at the Civic Theater. Although this was the second performance in the run and the 21st was a Tuesday, there were no empty seats to be seen. General Director David Bennett assembled a stellar international cast that included baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti singing her first Mistress Quickly.

New Production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Lyric Opera, Chicago

In Neil Armfield’s new production of Die Zauberflöte at Lyric Opera of Chicago the work is performed as entertainment on a summer’s night staged by neighborhood children in a suburban setting. The action takes place in the backyard of a traditional house, talented performers collaborate with neighborhood denizens, and the concept of an onstage audience watching this play yields a fresh perspective on staging Mozart’s opera.

A Salome to Remember

Patricia Racette’s Salome is an impetuous teenage princess who interrupts the royal routine on a cloudy night by demanding to see her stepfather’s famous prisoner. Racette’s interpretation makes her Salome younger than the characters portrayed by many of her famous colleagues of the past. This princess plays mental games with Jochanaan and with Herod. Later, she plays a physical game with the gruesome, natural-looking head of the prophet.

L’Elisir d’Amore Goes On Despite Storm

On February 17, 2017 Pacific Opera Project performed Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at the Ebell Club in Los Angeles. After that night, it can be said that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stay this company from putting on a fine show. Earlier in the day the Los Angeles area was deluged with heavy rain that dropped up to an inch of water per hour. That evening, because of a blown transformer, there was no electricity in the Ebell Club area.

Boris Godunov in Marseille

There has been much reconstruction of Marseille’s magnificent Opera Municipal since it opened in 1787. Most recently a huge fire in 1919 provoked a major, five-year renovation of the hall and stage that reopened in 1924.

Garsington Opera Announces Extended Season: 1 June to 30 July 2017

For the first time in its history, this summer Garsington Opera will present four productions as well as a large community opera. 2017 also sees the arrival of the Philharmonia Orchestra for one opera production each season for the next five years.

Glyndebourne Festival 2017: White Cube artist Rachel Kneebone to exhibit new work

New work by the English artist Rachel Kneebone will be exhibited at Glyndebourne Festival 2017, which opens for public booking on 5 March. The London-based artist has created three new sculptures inspired by two of the operas being staged at the Festival this summer - Cavalli’s Hipermestra and a new opera based on Hamlet by composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn.

Bartoli a dream Cenerentola in Amsterdam

With her irresistible cocktail of spontaneity and virtuosity, Cecilia Bartoli is a beloved favourite of Amsterdam audiences. In triple celebratory mode, the Italian mezzo-soprano chose Rossini’s La Cenerentola, whose bicentenary is this year, to mark twenty years of performing at the Concertgebouw, and her twenty-fifth performance at its Main Hall.

Winterreise : a parallel journey

Matthew Rose and Gary Matthewman Winterreise: a Parallel Journey at the Wigmore Hall, a recital with extras. Schubert's winter journey reflects the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, where images act as signposts mapping the protagonist's psychological journey.

Anna Bolena in Lisbon

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed in 1830, didn’t make it to Lisbon until 1843 when there were 14 performances at its magnificent Teatro São Carlos (opened 1793), and there were 17 more performances spread over the next two decades. The entire twentieth century saw but three (3) performances in this European capital.

Oh, What a Night in San Jose

It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.

Billy Budd in Madrid

Like Carmen, Billy Budd is an operatic personage of such breadth and depth that he becomes unique to everyone. This signals that there is no Billy Budd (or Carmen) who will satisfy everyone. And like Carmen, Billy Budd may be indestructible because the opera will always mean something to someone.

A riveting Nixon in China at the Concertgebouw

American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.

English song: shadows and reflections

Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.

A charming Pirates of Penzance revival at ENO

'Nobody does Gilbert and Sullivan anymore.’ This was the comment from many of my friends when I mentioned the revival of Mike Leigh's 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera (ENO). Whilst not completely true (English Touring Opera is doing Patience next month), this reflects the way performances of G&S have rather dropped out of the mainstream. That Leigh's production takes the opera on its own terms and does not try to send it up, made it doubly welcome.

A Relevant Madama Butterfly

On Feb 3, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s dramatic opera Madama Butterfly. Sandra Lopez was the naive fifteen-year-old who falls hopelessly in love with the American Naval Officer.

Johan Reuter sings Brahms with Wiener Philharmoniker

In the last of my three day adventure, I headed to Vienna for the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein (my first time!) for Mahler and Brahms.

Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Head to Asia

In Amsterdam legend Janine Jansen and the seventh Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, Daniele Gatti, came together for their first engagement in a ravishing performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Verdi’s Requiem with the Berliner Philharmoniker

I extravagantly scheduled hearing the Berliner, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Wiener Philharmoniker, to hear these three top orchestra perform their series programmes opening the New Year.

Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher in Lyon

There is no bigger or more prestigious name in avant-garde French theater than Romeo Castellucci (b. 1960), the Italian metteur en scène of this revival of Arthur Honegger’s mystère lyrique, Joan of Arc at the Stake (1938) at the Opéra Nouvel in Lyon.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Nina Stemme as Leonore [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera]
04 Apr 2011

Literalism and Truth: Fidelio, Royal Opera

Proof that literalism isn’t truth: Jürgen Flimm’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, first heard at the Met and at the Royal Opera House, London in 2007.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio

Steven Ebel: Jaquino; Elizabeth Watts: Marzelline; Nina Stemme: Leonore; Kurt Rydl: Rocco; John Wegner: Don Pizarro; Prisoners: Ji Hyun Kim; Dawid Kimberg; Florestan: Endrik Wottrich; Willard W White: Don Fernando. Sir Mark Elder: Conductor; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House; Renato Balsadonna: Chorus Director. Jürgen Flimm: Original Director; Daniel Dooner: Revival Director; Robert Israel: Set Designer; Florence von Gerkan: Costumes; Duane Schuler: Lighting.

Above: Nina Stemme as Leonore

Photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera

 

A straightforward reading of Fidelio is almost a contradiction in terms. The real message is hidden, just as Florestan is hidden, because it’s too dangerous to contemplate. In 1805, the idea that one woman could bring down the system was so unlikely that an authority figure like Don Fernando had to be introduced to make the plot feasible. He’s benevolent but still an Enlightenment despot. Beethoven and his audiences were not naive. They know all too well that Leonore is theory made narrative. Symbolic, not reality.

2471ashm_355-WEGNER-AS-PIZA.gifJohn Wegner as Don Pizarro and Endrik Wottrich as Florestan

Florestan is more than a prisoner, or even an ordinary man. He’s an embodiment of “Der Edle, der für Wahrheit stritt” (the noble spirit that strives for Truth). Political and philosophical concepts are so fundamentally part of the meaning of this opera that any production that downplays the issues is a betrayal of what Beethoven believed and what the opera is really about.

Jürgen Flimm, however, takes a unswervingly literal approach, without irony or insight. No political or radical passions here. The prison isn’t a mirror of society so much as decoration. Leonore (Nina Stemme) unlocks the cell doors, and out the prisoners pop, meek and mild. Anyone with experience of prisons, even “nice” ones, knows they’re bursting with suppressed violence. So the wonderful chorus “O welche Lust, in freier Luft Den Atem leicht zu heben!” is glorious, but it’s meant to be poignant and symbolic, not literal. Things don’t change so easily. But Beethoven knew the sublime music would have an emotional effect on his listeners. Spurred into sympathy, audience attitudes might change. Only then would there be any chance of real liberation.

Fidelio is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, but there are clues in the music as well as in the stage directions. Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica) is more than a random arrangement of abstract sounds. So Fidelio with its text is even more explicitly concerned with ideas beyond music. It’s much more than a narrative and clues to its meaning are embedded in abstract sound. Fidelity to the script, in the case of Fidelio, means paying attention not just to the words but to what’s happening beneath the surface making the story what it really is.

Leonore’s music in the first scenes is agitated, conveying a sense of entrapment. Yet Stemme is directed to move from one side of the stage to another, dissipating the tension. Fortunately Stemme, like Leonore, has integrity and the stage nous to sing more acutely than she might normally. She inhabits character rather than making sounds for the sake of sound. Her movements are like those of a wild bird, which cannot be caged and seeks freedom. Whether this was in Flimm’s direction, or an idea by Daniel Dooner, revival director, or Stemme’s natural instincts as actress, I don’t know. But she’s able to express more than what’s strictly in the score.

2471ashm_091-STEMME-AS-LEON.gifNina Stemme as Leonore, Kurt Rydl as Rocco and Elizabeth Watts as Marzelline

Florestan isn’t easy to cast. He’s an unusually charismatic figure, even more a symbol than a man. He’s so dangerous that he must be kept in solitary in the deepest, most secret dungeon. Again, Beethoven’s abstract music offers clues. Tenor voice, as a deliberate symbol of purity against a dank, dirty background. That’s why Beethoven, normally skimpy with stage directions, specifies a well and piles of rubbish. The vocal part sits high in the register because it represents an alternative to the other male parts, all written for low bass baritone. Florestan should, ideally, shine with glowing light, standing out from the darkness around him.

Since there have been a few wonderfully lustrous Florestans in recent years, such as Jonas Kaufmann, most others suffer in comparison. Endrik Wottrich is adequate, especially given that this unimaginative production asks for nothing more. Perhaps he’d be more inspiring in a production that made more of Florestan’s alluring charisma. Here, he’s not expected to be more than stock character.

Willard White is an impressive Don Fernando. The part is written for big, compelling voices, though significantly, there’s little call for psychological complexity in his music. Don Fernando is a plot device as much as a person. Maybe good kings appoint good ministers, but history has shown that that’s not something we can count on. Again, Beethoven is commenting through music rather than through words. Similarly, Don Pizarro’s music reflects repression, but John Wegner, fortunately, makes more of it than simplistic villain.

2471ashm_394-WEBER-AS-PIZAR.gifJohn Wegner as Don Pizarro and Nina Stemme as Leonore

Kurt Rydl is a good solid Rocco, also vocally capable of conveying more than he’s asked to do in this production. The “gold” aria is important as it delineates Rocco’s personality. He’s not materialistic per se, but pragmatic. Not evil enough to kill Florestan, but weak enough to let Don Pizarro do the dirty work. Despots don’t get want they want without “innocent” followers. Elizabeth Watts’s Marzelline is charming, but again barely developed in stage terms. It’s a waste of her very considerable talents as singer and actress. She’s capable of much more. Perhaps Flimm’s too concerned with the trappings of marriage, like bouquets, rather than the spirit of marriage, which is what motivates Leonore.

It says a lot about this production that one of the most successful characters is Steven Ebel’s Jaquino. Left pretty much to his own resources by the nominal Personeregie, Ebel creates the role on his own. Though the part is relatively small, Ebel’s Jaquino comes over as fully thought through and convincing. In his own way, Jaquino is a male counterpart to Leonore. Both are faithful in love, both unfazed by difficult situations. Jaquino’s role is to Leonore’s, a recapitulation of a main theme. Again, Beethoven’s clues lie in the music, not just words.

The choruses in Fidelio are important because they represent the wider world, as opposed to the isolated charcaters in the main roles. The Royal Opera House Chorus is always very good. The voices in the chorus “O welche Lust” were very well balanced, so the effect of sound moving across the ensemble was well realized. The big choruses at the end were stunning. “Heil sei dem Tag, Heil sei der Stunde” sounds like chorale. Commitment expressed with quasi-religious fervour. At last the stage is lit brightly and gloom dispelled. But Flimm places neatly dressed wives and children in the chorus. But while Fidelio celebrates loyalty in marriage, it isn’t really about family, per se.

Sir Mark Elder replaced Kyril Petrenko as conductor on short notice. Elder is nearly always good and reliable, but this time the pace was sluggish, textures spread too far and without much sense of form and dynamics. Maybe the lacklustre production was getting to him as well. Fidelio is so much more than literal narrative. Stripped of conceptual context, it’s nullified, as music as well as theatre. “Wahre Liebe fürchtet nicht.” True love can’t be suppressed. Flimm’s lumpen production proves that literalism kills veracity.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):