05 Oct 2013
More than two centuries on, Fidelio may well remain the most misunderstood opera of all.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
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.)
Emma 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.
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.