Wednesday 4 March 2020

Fidelio at the Royal, or, And Then the Curtain Rose on Act 2

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 1st March 2020.

At the interval of this performance it seemed as if we were heading for a solid, if not a stellar afternoon. Then the curtain rose on Act 2 and I realised we were in for a very long fifty minutes.

But let us start with the music. This is generally a strong if not, from where I was sitting, outstanding set of singing performances. Lise Davidsen (Fidelio) clearly has a voice of enormous power which punched through physically to the Amphitheatre in a way few singers do. She does her best to carry off dramatically the increasingly unconvincing direction. She also delivers some of the more intimate moments with great character - for example the Act 1 Quartet (which was probably the single most satisfying moment of the whole performance). But in some of the exchanges I'd have liked more flexibility and variation in volume. We were asked for our understanding of Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan) before the curtain rose so this was not an occasion on which to judge his capacities in the role - he sang creditably under the circumstances. There was finely sung supporting work from Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline), Robin Tritschler (Jaquino) and Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco). Simon Neal brought a rich bass to Pizarro but didn't always cut through the orchestra at full tilt.

In the pit Antonio Pappano had an uneven afternoon. At the interval I was more sympathetic to his approach than my brother. He was at his best in the more intimate, lingering sections of the score (for example the quartet previously mentioned). Elsewhere he sometimes struggled to build moments - the Prisoners Chorus didn't make the impact it can. In Act Two it felt as if dramatic musical momentum pretty completely vanished - most notably during the grave digging scene, and both the great recognition moment and the concluding celebration of freedom left me emotionally cold - though it would have been a tough ask of any conductor to transcend this production.

This was director Tobias Kratzer's Royal Opera debut and, quite frankly, if this is the kind of thing he does I'll be quite happy if we never see him again. The first act is naturalistic (hence my mistaken views at the interval). There's too much busyness, tiresome dumb show during the overture, and the movement of both chorus and leads is rarely distinguished, but the fundamental setting and interactions do well enough - that's to say it's a recognisable prison environment, and one isn't constantly puzzling over why performers are doing things (some might think this a low bar but in the current new opera production climate I'm afraid it can rarely be relied upon). That said there are bizarre decisions - as far as I could judge we were supposed to be in Revolutionary France, making it ludicrous that Rocco's excuse for releasing the prisoners is that it's the King's name day. I also could not make out why Leonore removes her disguise during her big Act 1 aria, while sitting in Rocco's front room into which anybody might come at any moment (and indeed somebody does). It is all very well (spoilers) to try and update the story by turning it into a case of sisterhood between Leonore and Marzelline, but the production failed to convince me that this was what would have happened based on what we were shown - I thought it much more likely a furious, embarrassed Marzelline would betray the deceiver to her father.

But it is in Act Two that Kratzer really lets loose, in a manner which to me suggested that the whole production was based on the premise of sticking two fingers up at the audience. You may recall that Act Two opens in Florestan's dungeon - the text is very clear about this - it's dark, and he's completely alone. Not in Kratzer's version however. The curtain rises on a very white space, an unconvincing rock centre stage (which later renders the grave digging sequence laughable), surrounded by three semi-circles of black chairs occupied by men and women in evening dress. Putting the opera house audience on stage is a really tired directorial tick, and I found it here totally ineffective. It also wasn't terribly surprising given the opening projections of the filling auditorium on the front cloth - I did anticipate some kind of further gesture in that direction in the second half. The set-up is made the more maddening by the introduction of back projections (courtesy of Manuel Braun) which persist through most of the Act - we keep being shown close ups of the on-stage audience - it's distracting and again ineffective.

Movement of the leads also deteriorates in Act Two - there's little sense of emotional connection between Leonore and Florestan, and what Marzelline and Jaquino were supposed to be doing in their interactions with the chorus at the end lacked clarity. There's also a lot of taking off and putting on of clothes, particularly in the final scenes (Florestan struggling to help Leonore out of her boots during the final chorus was especially irritating) - another directorial tick which judging by this and ENO's Luisa Miller seems to be back in fashion, and as far as I'm concerned can happily go out of it again.

But the overall problem with Act Two is simply this - it throws out any sense of where we are - except possibly the opera house, but in that case it simply emphasis the artificiality of the whole thing and therefore it becomes difficult to be concerned about what is happening to any of the characters. And that, as with so many opera productions these days, was essentially the effect it had on me - I pretty much ceased to feel any emotional connection with the story. The denouement is presumably trying to make a point about jolting opera audiences out of their torpor - but the idea feels tired and I also think it's just lazy and indeed inaccurate to assume that opera audiences (even those who can afford to pay for Stalls seats) do not include many people passionately concerned about the world outside the opera house. I presume it was supposed to make us feel complicit in the mistreatment of the prisoners, but it did not have that effect on me. Worse, the great musical climaxes of Act Two went for nothing for me - I just wanted it to end.

My last staged Fidelio was the legendarily awful Lyon Opera production at the Edinburgh Festival in which the singers were all put on segways. This is not quite so bad, not least because the musical standards are much higher, but in Act Two Kratzer makes a valiant effort to best it. If you have tickets there is enough at least before the interval to salvage this, and I can only suggest closing your eyes in Act Two. If you were not able to obtain tickets I cannot recommend queueing for returns.

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