Regular readers will know we are admirers of Donald Runnicles at this blog, well our name is a bit of a giveaway. His performances of concert opera at the International Festival over the years have consistently been highlights, and it's been really excellent news that after the baffling gap of the Mills era, Linehan has in recent Festivals resumed inviting Runnicles to give concert opera. I sincerely hope Nicola Benedetti will continue to do so when she takes over as Artistic Director next year.
My history of staged Fidelios has been pretty dismal, in fact I think I've probably seen more failed productions of this opera than of any other. The last time the Festival included the work was a candidate for the worst opera staging I've ever seen, and since then the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne have added problematic productions. It occurred to me after this performance that directors perhaps start from the premise that the work is a problem and feel they have to do drastic things to it - not least because of the chunks of spoken dialogue. Somewhat to my surprise Runnicles had decided to include some narrative summary between the musical numbers here - adapted by Sir David Pountney and delivered by Sir Willard White (also singing Don Fernando). The odd thing for me was that as the performance went on I think I was tending to tune the summary out and feeling the musical performance as a compelling drama in its own right. Maybe it's because I now know the work well and my mind could fill in the gaps, but I also think it's to do with how much is there in the libretto and Beethoven's music, assisted here by the deeply felt performances of all the musicians on stage. In other words it really struck me that actually this work doesn't have to be nearly such a problem piece as directors have so often seemed determined to treat it - everything you need is there for powerful emotional drama - done more straightforwardly on stage as it essentially was here it could be gripping, moving - as this was for me.
That understanding of the piece was clear from the Overture - it wasn't so much the sense of excitement in the opening chords, but Runnicles and the Philharmonia's shaping of that darker, ominous passage that follows on - they crept in and we seemed to linger for a few moments the atmosphere building around us before the mood moved on. Throughout the piece Runnicles maintained that dual approach - combining the sense of momentum and drama with the capacity to linger as appropriate for emotional effect.
One of the things I suspect I wasn't fully aware of before Radio 3's various 2020 Beethoven programmes was how difficult his writing in this opera is for the singers, particularly the two leads. I'm pleased to say that both Emma Bell (Leonora), substituting for an indisposed Jennifer Davis, and Clay Hilley (Florestan) gave really strong, dramatically gripping performances. I think I have heard Bell in similar heavy rep in London before but I don't recall the voice at the top of the range having such volume at its command and being able to soar in quite the way that Bell did in this performance. She was also physically convincing as the character - appropriately costumed and with expressive face and small gesture doing much to pull us into the drama. As far as I can recall Hilley has never appeared on the London stage and on this showing that's a missed opportunity for London houses. He too has the power for the part but, like Bell could also sing beautifully and movingly at a lower volume (something that in my experience singers in these roles are often less able to do). Towards the end of the second act there was perhaps the odd moment of strain for both singers but in these taxing parts this was minor.
The supporting roles were, with one exception, strongly taken. In the Act 1 quartet ("Mir ist so wunderbar") Gunther Groissbock's Rocco threatened to overpower the other singers at times, but thereafter he settled and balanced in the ensembles, while coming across richly in solos and in sum giving a moving account of a role than can be a bit one dimensional. Kim-Lillian Strebel's Marzelline was nicely characterised, her lighter voice contrasting well with Bell, and also complemented by Gideon Poppe's Jaquino. Late on Sir Willard White made an authoritative Fernando. The only weak link was Markus Bruck's Pizarro - he certainly looked the part but unfortunately lacked the heft to go vocally toe to toe with either Rocco or Fernando, or to cut across the orchestra in his solos.
The chorus's contributions are small but absolutely critical and were superbly sung by Philharmonia Voices (director Aidan Oliver). Particularly notable was their ability to bring off the electrifying speed of Runnicles's tempi in the Act 2 Finale.
This performance marked the conclusion of what has been a quite superb EIF residency from the Philharmonia Orchestra. Despite this being their fifth consecutive night on stage, and all in demanding and lengthy works, they showed no signs of flagging but played their hearts out for Runnicles and for us, as they have done in all their performances this opening week. The Festival has been lucky to have them and I hope they will swiftly return.
For me, the fundamental test of most opera performances is whether I'm moved by the drama. This is in theory harder to achieve in concert opera because the imagination has to get past the absence of staging. For me, this performance entirely succeeded - I was gripped dramatically pretty much from the opening chords and on several occasions had tears in my eyes. I'm pleased to say that I think the performance was being recorded, presumably for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3, so do listen out for it.