Wednesday 21 April 2010

Where's Runnicles in Dresden - Fidelio at the Semperoper

When if first premiered in October 1989, Christine Mielitz's production of Fidelio must have caused quite a stir; it was also pretty brave. Doubtless this context lends an added impact to Beethoven's profoundly human drama of love and freedom triumphing over oppression.

Mielitz's relocates the action to a stark grey prison, often under florescent lighting, clearly meant to be in the former DDR. How must it have looked in the finale, the massed (and I mean absolutely massive, giving the most glorious sound imaginable) choir of prisoners and the east German people, coming together to sing celebrating the freedom of a political prisoner to an audience that would have included government dignitaries in the royal box. Similarly, as members of the crowd rushed forward to support Florestan. Indeed, on that first night, the cast then bravely stepped forward and read a statement calling for more freedom.

What, then, of getting to hear an opera in the Semperoper, actually the third opera house to bear that name - the first having been destroyed by fire, the second having been built by Semper's son in consultation with the original architect (over 1,000 letters between the two reside in a Zurich archive), the third built in the 1980s, a reconstruction of the second, which was destroyed during the second world war. The first thing that strikes one is the sound. The resident orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden are, of course, one of the finest orchestras in the world, as their visits to Edinburgh attest. Hearing opera performed with this uniquely rich orchestral sound is the sort of thing that should be on everyone's list of things to do before they die. Of course, the wonderfully resonant acoustic only adds to this. Indeed, on a tour of the house early in the day, we were informed that when the house was rebuilt the university volunteered to improve it, before realising they could not.

That said, the orchestra did not wash out the singers, though they seemed always to be making a very conscious effort to sing forwards. The Semperoper made no concession in terms of surtitles, not even in German, so this is fairly important (or it would be if my German wasn't quite so useless).

Ute Selbig and Aaron Pegram provided a strong opening as Marzelline and Jaquino, the former a particularly fine performance. Michael Eder was suitably spineless as Rocco. Jukka Rasilainen was a strong and menacing Don Pizarro, and yet his voice was perhaps a little growly, resulting in some indistinct pronunciation. Catherine Foster's Leonore was solid if not exceptional - she is no Christine Brewer.

The star of the cast was almost certainly Klaus Florian Vogt's Florestan. His voice was superb, his despair at the start of act two compelling. Markus Butter was okay as Don Fernando, and while the decision to play his freeing of Florestan as reluctant and forced by the people doubtless added weight to the critique of the DDR, it goes against the text, something that would normally earn my ire.

The production made excellent use of the house's revolving stage, neatly and quickly facilitating the scene changes. The coup de grace came with act two, when the flats that made up the prison were whisked swiftly into the air, neatly taking us down into Florestan's black and starkly lit dungeon. Here the production completely caught fire, as Leonore held Pizzaro off with a gun, having stripped off the top layers of her uniform to reveal her true identity.

I had wondered if we'd get the Leonora III overture between the scenes as often happens in concert and works well for me then and on recordings. I'm very glad they didn't, since I think it would have sapped out a lot of the drama. In the pit Peter Schneider provided solid direction. It was not perhaps the thrill a minute reading that, say, Mackerras might bring, nor though drama of a Klemperer, and yet he did bring out the richness and beauty of the score as well as ensuring his ensemble was well balanced. As noted, the playing of the orchestra, one or two fluffed notes aside, was of the highest order.

A couple of points to note about the Semperoper. It is interesting that, unlike British houses, the Royal Box really is placed for the best view in the theatre. Secondly, as at Deutsche Oper, the prices are less than half what you would pay at Covent Garden for the top seats. The cheapest seats are significantly cheaper than Scottish Opera, the more absurd given the relative merits of the two companies. Lastly, it's refreshing that the do not go in for clapping after arias and are content to wait for the end.

The Staatskapelle are, of course, a renowned orchestra in their own right. For symphonic concerts the floor of the pit raises up (the pit can also be expanded for bigger works). It's interesting that Dresden, approximately the size of Edinburgh, can sustain two symphony orchestras, a contemporary music ensemble, an opera house, the latter selling 90-95% of its tickets. If only.... In fairness, we more hold our own in terms of everything except the opera.

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