Fidelio in Dublin

Yesterday evening found me once again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance of Beethoven’s only Opera, Fidelio, performed by Lyric Opera Ireland together with the young musicians of Sinfonua conducted by Tony Purser. The event was, of course, part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations that will be taking place all this year in concert halls around the world. The National Concert Hall isn’t really designed for opera, so the orchestra had to squeeze into the space between the front row of the stalls and the stage. I was a few rows back, but I could still read the scores on the desks!

A synopsis of the Opera is as follows.

Leonore (Sínead Campbell-Wallace) has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio, and has gained employment as assistant to the chief gaole, Rocco (Mikhail Svetlov), of the state prison in the hope of finding and freeing her imprisoned husband Florestan (Samuel Sakker). To complicate matters, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline (Rachel Croash), has fallen in love with Fidelio, which annoys her suitor Jaquino (Patrick Hyland) 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 (Gyula Nagy), 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 her true identity. In the nick of time (geddit?), the Minister, Don Fernando (Felix Kemp), 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, specifically with a much wider range of orchestral colour, and is clearly a look forward towards Romanticism. There are no less than four published versions of the overture. Last night we heard the standard one often called Leonore No. 3, but more often simply known as Fidelio.

Fidelio is really a singspiel (a form of opera in which the recitative is spoken or declaimed rather than sung). In this performance the spoken dialogue was in English while the sung part was in the original German. There were surtitles too, so the plot was easy to follow. Given the constraints of the National Concert Hall the set was simple but nonetheless effective, and the a mixture of 19th century and modern dress. Part of the chorus performed from the choir stalls behind the stage. In the first act they were dressed as prisoners but during the interval they changed into ordinary everday clothes, a device I found very effective. A story of wrongful imprisonment is as relevant today as it was in Beethoven’s time. This point was emphasized near the end of Act I when the prisoners are briefly allowed out from their cells: children in modern dress mingled with them, holding photographs of people of all races and generations who have been unjustly taken away.

I thought the principals were outstanding. Sínead Campbell-Wallace (soprano) was a superb Leonore, both vocally and dramatically, Samuel Sakker (tenor) impressed, Mikhail Svetlov (bass) was in fine voice throughout, and (perhaps the pick of them all) Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy was a wonderfully sinister Don Pizarro.

So far so good, but there were some less than ideal things about this production, chiefly the intonation. For many people the highlight of this Opera is the wonderful Prisoners’ Chorus (“O welche Lust….”) when the inmates of the gaol are temporally released to get some fresh air. They staggered onto the stage, eyes blinking at the light, but their incarceration had obviously robbed some of  them of a sense of pitch and the started horrifically out of tune. From time to time the orchestra – especially the brass – also struggled to find the correct pitch, producing some painfully jarring moments.

It’s hard to believe that it has been the best part of a decade since I first saw Fidelio, in a production by Welsh National Opera. Both that one and this one offered much to enjoy, but I still have to see a production that really does this work justice.

26 Responses to “Fidelio in Dublin”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Obsessed as I am by O Welche Lust, I have listened to many versions on YouTube and found Klemperer’s to be the best.

    This chorus is used just after 25 minutes in this wonderful episode of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation:

    Anybody in a hurry should see 7.40 – 11.00 then 15.15 – 31.54.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I once worked in a university department where the leader of the group I was a member of used to hold very long group meetings every week. We would be let out after two hours to fetch cups of tea. I often found myself whistling the Prisoners ‘ Chorus while queueing for tea.

  3. “chiefly the intonation”

    I guess that everyone has a bad day sometimes, but that is unusual.

    I was at a concert last week, part of a series of Baroque music with something else, which gives me exposure to stuff I might not otherwise hear and reminds me that my decision to stick with Baroque music for all “serious” music is, with a few exceptions, correct—not that stuff like that by Camille Saint-Saëns on the programme is bad, but it pales compared with Bach or even Rameau.

    After the concert I spotted two violinists in the tube and asked one of them how often they had rehearsed the pieces (for this performance), and her reply was “just once”. Granted, the pieces by Saint-Saëns and Bach are performed relatively often, but they might not have played the Rameau stuff before.

    • Interestingly, the concert took place in a building (where I have often been to concerts) originally conceived for the Bundestag, but then, after Bonn became the seat of government, was repositioned as the headquarters of the Hessian radio and television.

    • After the concert I spotted two violinists in the tube and asked one of them how often they had rehearsed the pieces (for this performance), and her reply was “just once”.

      Professional orchestral musicians’ (I know a few) sight-reading (and other) skills are at a level inconceivable to amateurs (such as myself). Lots of familiarity with the general repertoire, and with how this class of thing generally goes, and … practice practice practice.

      That’s why they’re paid the big … oh, never mind, they’re not.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’ll be at the Covent Garden production next month, with Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan.

    • I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it. I’m not totally convinced by Jonas Kaufmann but I’m prepared to change my opinion!

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    The Covent Garden production I’m going to next week (if we be spared, as mediaevals said) opened last night, and the reviews were interesting. Kaufmann was recovering from a bug and was not on top form.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    I was at Covent Garden last night (March 13th) for Fidelio. Jonas Kaufmann was replaced by his understudy; judging by the reaction to this announcement of the chap just along from me, he clearly reckoned Kaufmann was malingering or too scared to appear in public. I have no idea and simply hope JK hasn’t got Coronavirus, but I must say I was glad that my main wish was to see this opera and that for me Kaufmann was simply icing on the cake. The first half was very fine, and the horns were well to the fore in O Welche Lust, as in Klemperer’s magnificent version. The location was changed from Spain to revolutionary France, which neither added to nor detracted from it. Marzelline’s declaration of love to Fidelio was played as an attempted seduction, which was rather coarse. The second half was equally good musically, and Lise Davidsen’s Leonore was every bit as fine as the reviews said. But Florestan’s opening “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” was made rather absurd by being on as brightly-lit a stage as I have ever seen. Also, instead of Leonore pointing a gun at the evil Pizarro to prevent him murdering Florestan, it is Marzelline who gets the gun out – and actually shoots him. Marzelline subsequently goes on with an added spoken monologue to Leonore saying that she now understands why Leonore/Fidelio withdrew. It jars, and would have been better not added to the original libretto. Very few directors have as good a dramatic sense as the writers of what 200 years have proved to be one of the greatest operas, and Tobias Kratzer is no exception. But I enjoyed the evening very much; I have been waiting for a Fidelio for a couple of years now, and here it was in Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year (he was born in December 1770).

    I should add that I have never seen the West End so quiet on a Friday night as before and after this performance, and the streets of Fulham, where I was staying, were like the opening of the Day of the Triffids. I take coronavirus seriously and I am modifying my behaviour in various ways, but I take Fidelio more seriously, and I had no intention of not taking up my ticket.

    Tuesday’s performance is to be broadcast live to cinemas. Will it take place with a full Covent Garden; will it take place for the broadcast’s sake behind closed doors; or will it be cancelled?

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    I meant to add to my comments about Fidelio itself above that the final scene has Don Fernando turning up very much as a Deus ex Machina, and that the music that follows is far preferable to me as an expression of joy than the rather manic and forced expression thereof in the final movement of the 9th – parts of which one can clearly hear in embryonic form.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    The recent Covent Garden production was broadcast on Radio 3 last night, including Kaufmann as Florestan. So microphones were at one performance in which he turned up (even if cameras weren’t), perhaps the premiere.

    • telescoper Says:

      Coincidentally he was on Lyricfm last night too, (not) Live From The Met in Massenet’s Werther.  He was excellent, I should say.

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