Fidelio doesn’t get so many outings these days, despite the magnificence of Beethoven’s music. It is good to see a new version of this classic.
Beethoven was very taken with the idea of composing a grand opera, notwithstanding that his greatest talent lay in orchestral and other instrumental work. In relation to opera his “time is out of joint”, in that he falls in the cusp between the classical world in which Mozart was pre-eminent and the full flowering of romantic opera in Italy and France. Fidelio has elements of both genres, but doesn’t achieve the greatness of either. Yet the tale of a heroic young woman who infiltrates a prison to liberate her political prisoner husband is a splendid one, and Leonora remains the greatest heroine of opera.
This production features some wonderful performances. German-born Anke Hoppner as Leonora sings stunningly and also brings plenty of emotion to the role. She conveys effectively her anguish at her husband’s fate, her embarrassment yet opportunism at the unexpected advances of Marzelline, and her bravery in confronting the villain. That villain, prison governor Don Pizarro, is convincingly performed by Barry Ryan, who sings with great strength and conviction.
I emjoyed the work of Sarah Crane as Marzelline, the prison warden’s daughter who has the misfortune to fall in love with Leonora in her cross-dressed guise as Fidelio. Her singing is beautiful to listen to and she splendidly conveys the sense of her sexual anticipation, while her distress at the revelation of Fidelio’s identity is palpable. Virgilio Marino too is successful dramatically and vocally in portraying the unwanted wooer, Jaquino. Richard Anderson as Rocco gives a strong, well-rounded performance. The famous quartet involving these characters in Act 1 is musically rich and balanced.
As the prisoner Florestan, Bradley Daley covers the role well, with initial uncertainty in his very difficult opening scene giving way to vocal confidence as Act 2 develops, while Peter Axford as the minister is suitably commanding in both his appearance and singing.
The Queensland Orchestra under Graham Abbott’s direction produces a beautiful and balanced sound, with the woodwind work particularly memorable, especially in the overture and the prisoners’ chorus. The prisoners themselves provide a gorgeously harmonised and robust chorus, one of the highlights of the performance. In addition to preparing the chorus, Narelle French has provided good quality surtitles. (On the other hand, having not seen a Fidelio with titles before, I think I rather enjoyed it better when not knowing exactly what was being sung, given that the libretto is often rather trite and melodramatic.)
I was less captivated with the approach of this production, both directed and designed by South African Marthinus Basson. The general concept, of transforming the medieval Spanish fortress into a latter-day Guantanamo Bay, is a good one. But the development of the idea doesn’t quite work.
The design centres on a prison bars massively emblazoned with the word “PRISON”, while the stage is littered with large letter blocks which singers assemble throughout the performance to form words which represent current themes. This is entertaining at first, particularly in the flirtatious interactions between Marzelline and Jaquino, but subsequently tedious. Did we have to see spelt out to us literally that we were witnessing OPPRESSION or COURAGE or a desire for LIBERATION? (Perhaps all we needed was John Cleese to spell out the BLEEDING OBVIOUS!)
But it remains a great opera, and deserves to be seen, or at least heard, for the orchestral and vocal achievements of Opera Queensland and the Queensland Orchestra. After all, it’s been 26 years since Brisbane’s last production of Fidelio.