Fidelio is not a conventional opera. For many reasons it can be ‘mission impossible’ for directors, said Vladimir Jurowski at the pre-talk last night, just before he got on the podium to conduct and perform with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO).
For one thing, Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera, and its development took on various stages due to some political censorship. He originally wanted to name it Leonore or The Triumph of Marital Love, yet the censors were actively stalling its premiere in 1805 until the opera had been radically changed. This resulted with an amended libretto that eventually premiered in 1814 at the Theater am Kärntnertor, Vienna. Thirdly, there’s the unusual structure; the combination of Rescue Opera (literally an opera about someone being rescued which was very popular in the early 18th century in French and Germany) and spoken dialogue, that is Singspiel.
Now, in 2017, Daniel Slater has directed a semi-stage production with soloists and chorus singers moving between and around Jurowski and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall. The rescue narrative follows Leonore disguising herself as a prison guard called Fidelio to save her husband Florestan who has been unjustly imprisoned by political despot Pizarro. The first act sees everyone, including the LPO, dressed down. Yet, unexpectedly, in between the musical numbers two actors, Helen Ryan and Simon Williams, provide a meta narrative, and some pearls of wisdom or do they?
This novel ‘narrational dialogue’, as Slater had dubbed it, was implemented in place of the original German singspiel. This entailed some tangible referencing to 20th-century horrors including Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein and even the etymology of hope. Yet this was further complicated by mentioning some unrelated items such as ‘opium’; somehow Freudian psychology managed to find its way in the meta-narrative as well. How these ideas relate to Fidelio or the opera itself may seem reasonable, yet as a performance goes it seemed to wreck the overall flow for the audience.
Had these ideas been left at the pre-talk, (featuring guest speakers: Dr Laura Tunbridge; Associate Professor at the Faculty of Music, St Catherine’s College, Oxford; Dr Peter Thompson, Director of The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies; and Gillian Moore, Director of Music at Southbank Centre) where there was much discussion about Beethoven, his feelings on composing Fidelio and the philosophical ideas attached to the opera, such as the principle of hope by German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Bloch, this would have sufficed. Instead, audiences had to deal with a quadruple whammy: the opera (or spiritual operetta, as some may perceive it), two narrators who – sadly – stumbled on some of their words, music composed by the symphonic mastermind and surtitles that also provided a written description of what was going on – the fourth, pretty much, doing the job of the second without needing to.
Despite this, the music quality was not under dispute. Jurowski showed his deep-seated respect for Beethoven’s work in the dark, second act, opening with the harrowing and majestic orchestral movement that has a slight resemblance to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The LPO were firm, impenetrable and exciting. It is perhaps one of the few times I’ve seen the LPO, truly, on fire.
The London Voices were tough on the mark and sang with real gusto. Pavlo Hunka, who replaced Christopher Purves, was uncompromising as Pizarro yet he seemed slightly restricted voice wise, while Robert Dean Smith, who stepped in for Michael König, as Florestan offered up a great start with a prolonged ‘Gott’ at the outset of act 2. His prisoner’s state-of-mind was convincing and his long-awaited shock of seeing his wife was moving.
Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Rocco was vocally refined and engaging, and although Ben Johnson performed the smaller role of Jaquino, he provided a pleasant first act with Sofia Fomina as Marzelline, with some giddy kitchen comedy. Fomina vocally soared throughout, instilling a perfect depiction of the hopes and dreams of a woman seeking love elsewhere.
Still, the one that caught my attention the most was Anja Kampe as Leonore. Not only did her portrayal of a determined wife, dressed as Fidelio, seem courageous and touching, she sang with poignancy and tenderness – simply a profound voice.
It goes without saying that the drama of Fidelio is weaker than the music-drama. When seeing Fidelio, one is meant to immerse themselves with the feelings of its characters through the music and pay particular attention to the message. That message being the human spirit can survive through hope, which is mentioned multiple times in the opera as Hoffnung, whether that’s political injustice or everyday strife. Sadly, last night felt incomplete. Had it not been for the rip-roaring performance by the LPO, I might have disregarded the opera altogether, but it is what Jurowski calls Beethoven’s ‘crown’ masterwork, after all.