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<em>Fidelio</em>, Prom 9
23 Jul 2017

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Fidelio, Prom 9

A review by Claire Seymour

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou


Given that the opera celebrates both individual freedom and the spirit of collectivism - ‘A brother has come to seek his brothers, to help them, if he can, with all his heart,’ sings Don Fernando, as he delivers his gracious king’s order to ‘dispel the evil cloud of darkness’ which has enveloped the populace and the prisoners - it must have seemed an apt choice of work, exemplifying the very principles upon which the Arab-Israeli project was founded.

Indeed, Fidelio can seem more an expression of ideas and ideals than a drama about the lives of credible, three-dimensional individuals. As such, it might lend itself more readily to concert performance than to theatrical staging, and it was the former that we were offered at the Royal Albert Hall in a performance by a cast of international soloists, the BBC Philharmonic and the singers of Orfeón Donostiarra, under the baton of Juanjo Mena.

Fidelio - which falls between several stools: opéra comique, ‘rescue opera’ (or, in German, Befreieungsgeschichte) and Singspiel - is often described as a ‘problem opera’ and one of its sticking points is how to treat the spoken dialogue. On this occasion, the spoken German was amplified, which created a disjuncture between the various sections which form the whole and served to confirm that only one of the cast had the vocal power required to reach the furthest corners of the RAH. The dramatic veracity of the opera was also weakened by the failure of the soloists, by and large, to interact with each other - despite the fact that they were all (with the understandable exception of James Creswell, deputising for the indisposed Brindley Sherratt) singing from memory.

These minor misgivings, however, were unequivocally redeemed by the performance of Stuart Skelton as Florestan, once again contributing in utterly compelling fashion to the Proms’ Beethoven offerings following his memorable performance in Missa Solemnis last year. There can be few operas where the catalyst of the dramatic action is silenced for the entire first half of the work; but, this means that by the time Act 2 commences, with Leonore/Fidelio fervently embarked on her rescue mission, we are in a state of high expectation when we finally encounter the shackled Florestan, languishing alone in the prison’s furthest, darkest, dankest cell.

The BBC Philharmonic’s Act 2 orchestral prelude was cleanly and expressively executed, the instability of the rhythmic fragmentations and violent outbursts coalescing in the timpani’s disturbing tritone; but, nothing could fully prepare for the almost existential anguish of Skelton’s opening utterance, ‘Gott, welch Dunkel heir!’ (Oh, God! How dark it is!), the first word swelling with searing courage and defiance, and then depleting, an emblem of Florestan’s fading strength and hope. The declaration that ‘Doch gerecht ist Gottes Wille!’ (God’s will is just!) was assertive; the acceptance, ‘Das Mass der Leiden steht bei dir’ (He has decreed the measure of my suffering) was, despite the vehement melismatic twist, even and resigned.

Florestan’s liberator - his wife Leonore, disguised as ‘Fidelio’ - was Ricarda Merbeth, who delivered a vocal performance which was secure and disciplined, but who seemed reluctant to dare to complement her careful vocal delivery with dramatic commitment. Leonore has a lot of persuading to do. She must first don a male disguise with sufficient credibility to divert the affections of Marzelline from her light-hearted lover, Jaquino; then, she must insinuate her way into her husband’s prison by winning her ‘prospective father-in-law’s’ trust, and convince prison guard Rocco to allow her to accompany him to the cells. Surely, Fidelio would at least need to look at those whom she seeks to dupe? But, time and time again - despite the efforts of Louise Alder’s open-hearted, responsive Marzelline to engage with her new beloved - Merbeth stared straight ahead, as if oblivious and immune to such attempts. This was most frustrating in the Act 2 ‘Melodram’ in which Fidelio descends to Florestan’s cavern and must convince Rocco to employ ‘him’ as his assistant in the arduous task of digging the long-confined Florestan’s grave.

That said, Merbeth’s vocal performance was solid, the tone rich and rounded, if sometimes filled out with what I felt to be an overly wide vibrato, and the role’s wide range caused no problems. In Leonore’s Act 1 aria, ‘Abscheulicher!’ (Monster!) the ungainly angularity of the vocal line and the rapid runs and arpeggios - essentially instrumental in nature - were used to create urgency and to convey the heroine’s struggle.

Creswell’s Rocco might have displayed more ‘oafishness’ but all credit to the bass for this show-saving performance: Rocco’s ‘gold aria’ was a model of bourgeois proselyting, and Creswell’s phrasing was eloquent throughout. Detlef Roth’s Pizarro was a bit underwhelming; he needed darker vocal hues to convey the prison governor’s malice and bluster, and to justify the heckling of this reprehensible on-stage character - oh when will UK audience’s cease this undignified practice? - which greeted Roth at his ‘curtain call’. (Mena stepped forward and whispered in Roth’s ear - presumably to explain that the hoots were not a sign of audience disapproval of his singing but rather a relic of pantomime heckling.)

Alder Fidelio.jpg Louise Alder (Marzelline). Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou.

The younger soloists didn’t always have the heft for the venue but gave intelligent, vocally assured performances. Louise Alder seems to have limitless stamina and a musical memory as cavernous as Florestan’s cell: following recent performances in the Cardiff Singer of the World Final, and as Sophie in WNO’s Der Rosenkavalier, at the RAH she brought Marzellina to life, and the contrast between her crystalline soprano and Merbeth’s plumper, darker voice was effective. (The following evening, Alder stepped in at the last moment to replace the indisposed Andrei Bondarenko at the Wigmore Hall, where she’d performed earlier in the month in a recital entitled ‘Schubert and Women’s Voices’.)

As Jaquino, Benjamin Hulett was a vocally attractive partner for Alder and he imbued the spoken text with sensitivity and dignity. His opening duet with Alder, ‘Jetzt Schätzchen’ (Yes, sweetheart), made for an effectively sunny contrast to the Hadean depths of Florestan’s underworld to come.

As Don Fernando, David Soar was alone in being able to (almost) match Skelton’s projection, but he was more than a mere mouthpiece for royal authority and his addresses to the people conveyed genuine benevolence and fellow-feeling. As always, Soar gave an intelligent, considered performance.

The men of Orfeón Donostiarra were solicitous rather than revolutionary in tone in ‘O welche Lust’, and this helped Mena achieve textual clarity through the Act 1 finale. Similarly, the voices of the individual prisoners - Andrew Masterson (First Prisoner) and Timothy Bagle (Second Prisoner) - were given space to emerge from the mass. For the final chorus, the men, in evening dress, were joined by the women, in white, and we seemed to step even further into the realms of oratorio.

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s notes for his 1950 Salzburg production of the opera declared, ‘Fidelio is a Mass, not an opera - its emotions touch the borders of religion. […] After all we have experienced and suffered in recent times, this religious faith has never seemed so essential as it does today. … This is what constitutes the unique power and grandeur of Fidelio. […] What Beethoven was trying to express in Fidelio cannot be encompassed by any form of historical classification but extends beyond the narrow limits of a musical composition - it touches the heart of every human being and will always appeal directly to the conscience of Europe.’ Furtwängler’s words carried the momentous burden of the losses and atrocities of WW2, but the shadows cast by crimes against humanity are no less lowering today. Mena refrained from hammering home heavy-handed didacticism; but I did feel that, however ‘noble’, this performance lacked dramatic intensity.

Claire Seymour

Beethoven: Fidelio
Juanjo Mena (conductor), BBC Philharmonic, Orfeón Donostiarra.

Florestan - Stuart Skelton, Leonore - Ricarda Merbeth, Rocco - James Creswell,Marzelline - Louise Alder, Jaquino - Benjamin Hulett, Don Pizarro - Detlef Roth, Don Fernando - David Soar.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Friday 21st July 2017.

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