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Reviews

02 Mar 2020

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

Beethoven’s Fidelio: a new production by Tobias Kratzer at Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

After all, Beethoven was 19-years-old at the time of the storming of the Bastille, and in 1805, when the composer first presented his three-act Leonore one would have needed to be politically illiterate not to sense that an opera trumpeting such ideals would be associated with the spirit, if not the historical actualities, of the Revolution.

Similarly, no one would challenge the suggestion that Fidelio has dramaturgical, and generic, ‘issues’ that a director might seek to resolve in their own way. The opera’s troubled evolution caused Beethoven considerable labour and unrest, and the Fidelio that was performed in Vienna on 23rd May 1814 certainly didn’t solve the problems of the earlier three-act (1805) and two-act (1806) Leonores which preceded it. Even after eleven years and four different overtures, Beethoven was still lamenting that the opera needed wholesale re-writing.

So, there is nothing surprising or objectionable about Tobias Kratzer’s presentation, in this new production for the Royal Opera House, of Act 1 of Fidelio as a representation of a crucial juncture in the history of political ideals and events. Blazoned upon the curtain-drop is the Revolutionary motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, against a video-projection background of … well, us. Okay, leaving aside the matter of whether the ROH stalls audience is a fitting emblem of Revolutionary ideology, it’s perhaps not amiss to remind us that the upholding of such values requires us to step up to the breach. And, it’s a reminder that is slapped on with a trowel in Act 2.

Heads in basket  Bill Cooper.jpgPhoto credit: Bill Cooper.

And, so, Act 1 unfolds with realistic Terror. No matter that the energetic curtain-raiser overture that Beethoven finally plumped for after years of compositional agonising has little of the musico-dramatic relevance and impact of his preceding efforts. Kratzer uses it as a musical background to head-rolling violence - literally, as a blood-dripping basket is heaved into designer Rainer Sellmaier’s claustrophobic prison courtyard, for bereaved widows to retrieve the guillotined heads of their rebellious, truth-speaking husbands. When the prison warden’s daughter, Marzelline, arrives bearing a wicker basket of laundry, the parallel is discomforting: violent retribution is simply part of the day’s housework.

The comic domesticity of the opening scenes has been criticised for its disjuncture with the heroic exploits and virtuous redemption which ensue. Kratzer sets about trying to smooth over the schism - though the sliding forth of Rocco’s private rooms surely presents some sight-line issues to those seated on the right of the auditorium.

Though Rocco and Marzelline are descendants of eighteenth-century buffa, Kratzer underplays their obvious and comic self-interest: such egoism would obstruct the heroic virtue that he is intent upon them displaying subsequently. The first few numbers of Act 1 do not establish the world of the ‘old regime’. The bickering of Marzelline and Jaquino is unsettling rather than peevish, and the tension is tautened by Fidelio’s incessant knocking at the door. Marzelline should be a foil for Fidelio/Leonore’s virtue and constancy. Here, she is certainly not her father’s daughter. And in any case, Rocco ‘Gold aria’ does not seem to establish pecuniary self-interest as more important than his role as a paterfamilias.

Amanda Forsythe as Marzelline and Lise Davidsen as Fidelio.jpg Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline) and Lise Davidsen (Fidelio). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Proceedings begin to turn awry when Fidelio unwraps his/her breast-swaddling and is espied by the disillusioned Marzelline. Surely, the game is up? But, no, this Marzelline is inspired to her own heroic course of action. There are other obstacles to dramatic fluency, not least the over-loading of the spoken dialogue with text drawn from Beethoven’s contemporaries Georg Büchner (mainly from Danton’s Death) and Franz Grillparzer.

At the end of Act 1, the descent to the dungeons, where Rocco and Fidelio are to dig the grave of the prisoner prior to Pizarro’s arrival and assassination of his nemesis, is in this production an ascent into the light. That’s to say, the darkness is all within. Lighting Designer Michael Bauer confronts us with a glaring whiteness. Brechtian alienation reigns. The purpose of the blinding neon frame is revealed. At the start of Act 2 we find ourselves once again watching ‘ourselves’, this time in the form of the ring of present-day, grey-suited spectators - seated in a council chamber? or, drawing-room? - who stare at the shackled figure of Florestan, prone upon a slate mound, their shocked, disgusted, self-castigating expressions writ large in the back-wall video projections.

Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan.jpgJonas Kaufmann (Florestan). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Dramaturg Bettina Bartz gives an account, sometimes persuasive, of the directorial thinking, and suggests that in Act 2 Beethoven ‘depicts an almost timeless space in which interpersonal and societal issues are played out’. Well, one might say, there’s still a ‘rescue opera’ underway. Watching the flinches and cringes - inspired as much by reluctantly acknowledged guilt as by the physical stench and unsightly sores - as Florestan thrusts himself towards his ‘audience’, as far as his shackles allow, might well be as discomforting as intended. But, it’s also distracting: do we want to be diverted by an onlooker surreptitiously unwrapping and devouring a chocolate bar as Florestan confronts us with a musical vision of man’s inhumanity and capacity for resistance, revolt and redemption? Does this really tell us anything about ourselves, or about Beethoven, or Fidelio?

Other directorial interventions in Act 2 are even more problematic. It is, after all, conjugal fidelity which distinguishes Leonore from the economically self-interested Marzelline. The opera’s virtue is reserved for Florestan and Leonore: in an outburst of quasi-mystical religious ecstasy, Florestan has an apparition of his wife as an angel, ‘Standing by my side to comfort me … To lead me to freedom in the kingdom of Heaven’. The synonymity of conjugal love with republican virtue is destroyed in this production by Kratzer’s decision (spoiler alert) to make Marzelline the agent of liberation. Leonore is denied the gun with which to forestall Pizarro’s villainy: that role is assigned to the pistol-wielding, trumpet-fanfaring Marzelline.

Forsythe Neal Kaufmann.jpgAmanda Forsythe (Marzelline), Simon Neal (Don Pizarro), Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The arrival of Don Fernando to ‘save the day’ is one of the inherently problematic aspects of Beethoven’s opera. The notion of an enlightened deputy of an enlightened monarch serving as an abstract emissary of republican light requires some side-stepping. Maynard Solomon, one of Beethoven’s biographers, proposes a ‘solution’, observing that Beethoven’s political views were formed in Bonn during the 1780s, when under Elector Maximilian Franz ‘the ideas of the Enlightenment virtually became the official principles of the Electorate’. Thus, Beethoven subscribed to an ideal of reform from above - enlightened absolutism - by which a ‘prince’ would lead his people towards freedom, brotherhood and peace.

Kratzer opts for reform from below. Here, Don Fernando emerges from the horse-shoe ring of spectators. Perhaps that’s not out of place in a ‘rescue opera’ in which, conventionally, the resolution of political problems is not effected by supernatural deus ex machina but by the real actions by virtuous people. But, it does unbalance Beethoven’s characterisation, which is founded on principles of the constancy of identity, thereby depriving us of a counterpart to Pizarro’s personification of villainy and aristocratic tyranny - excepting the latter’s kindness to the black stallion upon which he arrives to deliver his murderous instructions to Rocco in Act 1.

Simon Neal as Don Pizarro.jpgSimon Neal (Don Pizarro). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Thankfully, to counter such dramaturgical turbulence there was much fine singing from the stellar cast. Though apologies were made in advance for Jonas Kaufmann, who had not attended the final dress rehearsal due to ill health, the tenor still managed to communicate Florestan’s rapture, and hit those impossibly high climaxes; if ‘Gott! Welch’ Dunkel’ and the final reconciliation with Leonore were in any way underwhelming the fault lay with Kratzer who seemed to have offered little direction to his principals, so occupied was he with rewriting the Fidelio rule book. When Leonore released her husband - heralded by a beautiful oboe solo - in addition to some awkward blocking there were music-word non sequiturs in their rapturous duet, ‘O namenlose Freude!’: ‘Now I have you in my arms’ they may sing, but on this occasion Leonore and Florestan were yards apart and looking in different directions.

Georg Zeppenfeld was an engaging and warm-toned Rocco, more compelling and sympathetic than is sometimes the case with this role. Simon Neal was Robespierre through-and-through but struggled with the stratospheric demands that Beethoven requires of Pizarro. Amanda Forsythe was a clear-toned Marzelline, but she didn’t have the weight to carry Kratzer’s revisioning of the role. Similarly, Robin Tritschler’s Jaquino was vocally secure but dramatically non-descript. As Don Fernando, Egils Siliņš sang with sincerity but struggled, not surprisingly, to make a dramatic impact.

The day was saved, appropriately, by Lise Davidsen who shone and soared as Fidelio/Leonora. She has a vocal presence which absolutely compels. If only she had not been, repeatedly, a microsecond behind the beat, creating a sense of labouring when Leonore should fly. And, if only she’d been given more directorial assistance by Kratzer, whose only instruction seemed to have related to inappropriate unwrapping of Leonore’s chest bindings.

Antonio Pappano, conducting with a baton, unusually, was as insightful, alert to detail, and empathetic as always, but even the sterling playing of the ROH Orchestra could not overcome the directorial waywardness.

The prisoners’ chorus in Act 1 was magical but had no dramatic context in Kratzer’s account. The final redemptive chorus - as the present-day observers overwhelmed the upholders of the eighteenth-century state - which draws, sometimes verbatim, on Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, should have bestowed order after the tumult of the prison scenes. Why did it not?

Well, Leonore may have triumphed with her ideals of hope, fidelity and honour, but Pizarro’s knife glinted still. Picked up by the disgruntled, unreconciled, alienated Jaquino, it seemed to create a crack in the opera’s visionary armour. Perhaps Kratzer’s vision of Fidelio had finally found a ‘truthful’ thread. In an 1998 essay, ‘Opera Opposed to Opera’, which considered the relationship between Così fan tutte and Fidelio, Edward Said remarks that, ‘Every affirmation … carries with it its own negation, just as every memory of love and conjugal fidelity also brings with it the danger and usually the actuality of something that will cancel it, annul it, obliterate it.’ Wise, and sad, words.

Claire Seymour

Jaquino - Robin Tritschler, Marzelline - Amanda Forsythe, Leonore - Lise Davidsen, Rocco - Georg Zeppenfeld, Don Pizzaro - Simon Neal, First Prisoner - Filipe Manu, Second Prisoner - Timothy Dawkins, Florestan - Jonas Kaufmann, Don Fernando - Egils Siliņš; Director - Tobias Kratzer, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Designer - Rainer Sellmaier, Lighting Designer - Michael Bauer, Video Designer - Manuel Braun, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Sunday 1st March 2020.

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