The warning signs around this show have been there from the very beginning. The director, Gary Hill, has virtually no experience of directing any sort of live performance, nevermind opera. The concept (of setting it on a doomed spaceship) sounded worryingly at odds with the trajectory of the plot. When I read news reports that he had delivered all direction via an assistant and that he did not wish the characters to fraternise too closely with each other, my heart sank. That this production was an incoherent mess therefore came as no surprise. What I did not expect (given Opera de Lyon's blazing performances at the Festival in 2006) was that the performance would be so musically poor.
This production might be considered a typical instance of distrust of the form. I had wondered if it was mockery, but my companions suggested that that usually at least produces something coherent, and coherent this production emphatically was not. Gary Hill's distrust showed up in multiple ways. Many opera productions fall victim to the vice of pointless busyness – in this case it was pointless busyness in Hill's dreary repetitive video projections. Not unpleasant to look at for five minutes, extremely tedious when stretched across two and a half hours, so much so that it was difficult to see how he had achieved eminence in that field. I have said before that video/film intelligently used can be a powerful element in operatic productions (see the Knussen Double Bill at Aldeburgh last year, or Die Frau ohne Schatten at EIF 2011), but it cannot be the be all and end all (as this production decisively proves) and it would be nice if critics would stop pushing the line that it can (or indeed the claim that using it is bold and revolutionary).
Many theatre directors like to take to pieces the original work and reconstruct it with other material jammed into the gaps. Something along these lines, usually several somethings, appears at the International Festival every year. In other words to do this today is, like using video, neither bold nor original. It is however, generally more difficult to do it in opera because of the through composed nature of most works. Now I must give credit to Hill here, he has found a new way forward – surtitle text in certain places bore only a tenuous relation to the words the chorus were actually singing – it's a failure but an experiment that needs to be taken note of (if only because there are a frightening number of other operas where Hill or other alleged directors might repeat the approach). More significantly of course, Beethoven did leave Hill with an alternative line of attack – the gaps for spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. Into some of these gaps (and for about five minutes before the music even started), Hill had introduced excerpts from Henry Martinson's epic sci-fi poem Aniara. This ostensibly transfered the action to a supposedly doomed spaceship – though it was an idea never properly thought through. To give two instances, you might ask a) how Hill dealt with the problem of the happy ending and b) how he dealt with the sudden appearance of Don Fernando given that the spaceship is supposed to be in splendidly isolated doom. The answer is he doesn't, and these failings were indicative of the production's incoherency. The poem is not a great work of literature in itself, judging by the excerpts we heard this evening. Putting it into conversation with Beethoven's opera not only adds nothing to one's experience of the latter work but in fact plays a significant role in the removal of all passion and feeling from the opera. When you are longing for Fidelio just to end so you can go home then something has gone spectacularly badly wrong. Ditto when members of the audience are laughing at the idea of Florestan being waterboarded. The latter occurred, I should perhaps mention, because there was also a vague idea that the production was trying to comment (again unclearly and unsuccessfully) on attacks on liberty in the contemporary United States.
Hill has two further ideas. The first was to place his principal singers on Segways, with the exception, for reasons which were obscure, of Don Pizarro. Having so hampered them, Hill could apparently think of little else to do than have them engage in a lot of pointless circling of the stage so they can't address remarks to each other. This is no more successful than the many productions I have seen which have adopted a similar, merely less mobile, approach. The second idea was to assume that the audience needed prompts regarding basic topics sung about – the most glaring of these was the video projection of large spinning coins just in case we had not cottoned on to the fact that Rocco was singing about the importance of money.
Now sometimes such terrible productions can be redeemed by musically blazing performances. Sadly this was one occasion when closing one's eyes was no help at all. Put bluntly the musical performances made rather a mockery of the word “international”. It was across the board a second rate cast ranging from the very poor (Pavlo Hunka's Don Pizarro & Michael Eder's Rocco) to the passable in places (Erika Sunnegardh's Leonore). More disturbingly for a major company conductor Kazushi Ono had persistent problems both with keeping stage and pit in sync and balancing orchestra and singers – the former was too loud much of the time. I should note though that I sympathise with any singer trying to produce a quality vocal performance while circling the stage on a Segway. The Opera de Lyon chorus had particular problems with keeping in time and apart from one or two places towards the end sounded generally thin. The orchestra played solidly enough (though there were rather more brass fluffs than a top quality band would have), but like all the rest of it rarely compelled attention.
This was in short the worst operatic performance I have seen at the Festival since the abysmal Actus Tragicus in 2009. The Festival Management should be ashamed of having programmed it. As regular readers will know we sometimes give out Where's Runnicles awards. I therefore close this review by making this show the second recipient of The Niles Crane 'Sprinkling Hand' Award for Production Teams who Should Never be Permitted to Work in that Capacity Ever Again. I only hope that this is realised.