Another sign that the summer is over is that the autumn season of Welsh National Opera has started at the Wales Millennium Centre. Last night I went to the opening night of their new production of Fidelio, the only opera ever composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.

I was particularly looking forward to this performance, partly because it has been very heavily plugged by the WNO publicity machine and partly because I’ve never actually seen it done live, although I have seen it on DVD and heard it on the radio. The opening night press presence and a full house added to the general sense of occasion as we took our seats in front of a bare stage dominated by a huge metal cage representing the prison about which the entire plot revolves.

Leonore has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio, and has gained employment as assistant to the chief gaoler, Rocco, in the hope of finding and freeing her imprisoned husband Florestan. To complicate matters, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline, has fallen in love with Fidelio, which annoys her suitor Jaquino (even though he doesn’t know Fidelio is actually a woman). Leonore persuades Rocco to let her help him in the underground cells where the political prisoners are held in inhuman conditions. The prison governor, the villainous Don Pizarro, learns of an impending inspection by the minister and decides that Florestan – who has been particularly cruelly treated – must be killed to hide the evidence of his abuse. Leonore hears of the plan to murder her husband and, as the prisoners are briefly allowed out into the sunlight, she searches in vain for Florestan among them. He is still in chains below ground. Eventually Leonore and Rocco descend into the darkness of the dungeon and find Florestan, near death having a vision of an angel that has come to rescue him. Leonore looks on as Pizarro arrives and tries to kill her husband, but she stops him and reveals here true identity. In the nick of time (geddit?), the Minister, Don Fernando, arrives and, appalled by what he sees, commands that all the prisoners be released. Leonore sets her husband free.

Much of Beethoven’s music from his “middle period” – Fidelio was first performed in 1805 – is about the struggle for political liberty and social justice that was taking place throughout Europe at the time so it’s not difficult to see why he was attracted to this story. Although originally written in three acts, it is now performed in a version with only two. This gives the opera a fascinating structure. The music in Act I is clearly a nod back in the direction of Mozart, while Act II is dramatically different, with a much wider range of orchestral colour, and is clearly a look forward towards Romanticism. Another thing that struck me was that, throughout, there is much more of an emphasis on combinations of two or more voices (compared to solo arias) than you find in many other operas in the standard repertoire; an example is the wonderful Act I Quartet. Also there are no less than four published versions of the overture. Often this opera is performed with the version called Leonore No. 3, but the one simply known as Fidelio.

Unfortunately, though, the overture was where it started to go wrong. The orchestral playing was ragged and out of balance, with the brass section (especially the horns) particularly lacking in control. This carried on into Act I and seemed to affect the singers who appeared ill-at-ease. Worse, the movement of the actors on stage was bizarre: moving backwards and forwards along straight lines, or sometimes circling around each other, as if they were automata running on rails. Perhaps this was supposed to emphasize the constraints on individual liberty represented by life in the prison. Who knows? I thought it just looked silly.

Fidelio is really a singspiel (a form of opera in which the recitative is spoken not sung). In this performance however much of the spoken text essential to understanding the plot was cut so it was hard to understand the context of what was going on. I was lucky in that I knew a bit about it before seeing it, but I’m sure a total newcomer would have been completely baffled. The set was stark and minimal, and the costumes grey and nondescript – appropriately enough for the prison setting – but they didn’t do much for the plot either, especially in the pervasive semi-darkness provided by the lighting.

It was only near the end of Act I that the cast seemed to settle down. By the time the massed ranks of the supporting singers appeared for the celebrated Prisoner’s Chorus it had really started to gel.
I don’t know if words were spoken at the interval, but Act II was a great deal better, although not quite good enough to banish memories of the debacle that was Act I. The compelling stage presence of WNO stalwart Dennis O’Neill as Florestan (who only appears in Act II) gave the performance a much-needed focus, the acting was more relaxed, more naturalistic, and more compelling than in the first act, and the rousing finale as uplifting as anything you could want to hear.

Lisa Milne was a fine Leonore/Fidelio, Robert Hayward a menacing Pizarro, Clive Bayley was in superb voice as Rocco, and as I’ve mentioned above, Dennis O’Neill was great too. Also worthy of a mention was the superb WNO chorus, led by Chorus Master Stephen Harris.

I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a bit disappointed by the way this performance started, but I’d still recommend going to see it. I’d have happily paid the money just for Act II. Perhaps it was first-night nerves anyway. I don’t do stars, but if I did I’d give it three…


6 Responses to “Fidelio”

  1. maggie parry-jones Says:

    I agree that the orchestral playing was a bit ragged at the beginning, and also later on, the playing and the singers were’nt quite tpgether…But the drama on stage was very powerful. I particularly enjoyed the release of the prisoners , out to the light, I loved the long silence in the House, not a sound , just the slow careful steps out to ‘freedom’. end of Act 1 The main soloists were all world class and the quartets and choral siniging were excellent.I will try my best to go and see it for a second time, to witness the triumph of good over evil.

  2. My comments seem to be generous compared with first review I’ve seen, which absolutely slates the whole thing:

  3. It’s a pity that Peter found Act I of the new Welsh National Opera production of Fidelio a bit disappointing. Let’s hope the rough edges are trimmed before the next performance.

    I did hear the WNO perform Fidelio in Cardiff about fifteen years ago, a nice performance then. It was given in the cramped New Theatre and I recall not being able to see the surtitles from my seat: to follow the words meant reading the libretto in a CD booklet I’d brought with me, reading it in the darkened theatre. Those were the days when it was still hoped that the National Lottery would fund Zaha Hadid’s design for an opera house in Cardiff Bay.

    Fidelio is an excellent opera for a number of reasons. The music is magnificent. The story is extraordinary: the concept of freedom, the right of the individual to the rule of law, equality before the law, liberation, and love. The opera begins with a domestic scene that includes the ironing of clothes, something that many people might think was introduced into the theatre or opera house only in the 1960s. Beethoven was an absolute genius. Leonore dressing as a man to gain entry into the prison system, and the mistaken love interest from Marzelline, is slightly at odds with the tone of the opera, however. It seems more like something that Mozart would have used for comedy, except in Fidelio it is supposed to be taken seriously.

    I have some recollection of seeing a production of Fidelio; once, either live or on television, which towards the end had the prison governor being arrested on the orders of the minister, then marched off stage, followed by the sound of a gunshot from offstage. That seemed a particularly inappropriate reinterpretation of Fidelio: the arrival of the minister Don Fernando is supposed to represent the return of the rule of law, not an arbitrary imposition of the death penalty.

    Let’s hope that with some more rehearsal, the next Cardiff performance of Fidelio has the polish that the WNO usually achieves.

  4. Only two stars from Andrew Clements in the Guardian:

    but he also refers to the “the feisty, finely played overture” as a high point. What?

  5. Derek Cornfield Says:

    Most awfully disappointing production I’ve ever had the misfortune of going to see.
    I never knew so called professionals could come up with such an amateur performance.

    I should have asked for my money back.
    I’ll never go to the WNO again.

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