Fidelio packs its punch

Last Saturday’s Fidelio at Covent Garden may not have been perfect, but it’s in the work’s DNA to pack a punch against many odds.  And even if the work itself hadn’t had such in-built strength, the quality of the singing would have pulled it through.

Nina Stemme, remarkable in every role I’ve ever heard her in, once again came through as a dramatic and vocally confident Leonora.  Even when given daft things to do by the director she still managed to retain the dignity of the character and make something convincing of the role.  A good example would be the frequent cleaning of guns, weighing them up, and swapping them from one bag to another during Abscheulicher! Make something of that, whilst imbuing your gleaming tone with dramatic nuance, if you can.  And if anyone can, Stemme did.

Before Act 2, an ROH bod came on to ask for ‘our understanding’, on behalf of Endrik Wottrich (allergies) even though, in the event, he didn’t seem to need it.  If there was a slight pinch to the tone, it was still an essentially strong and  clarion Florestan in Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier! He and Stemme made intense moments of their recognition in a dramatic prison scene, not always easy to bring off without unintentional comedy.

Of the other roles, Elizabeth Watts made more of Marzelline than either Kurt Rydl or John Wegner made of Rocco and Pizarro respectively.  She projected a lively and confident young girl, touchingly crushed by the realisation that Fidelio is actually Leonora.  Rydl was a little unfocused of voice to fully get the role across and, whilst Wegner fitted himself to the director’s conception of the corrupt politician well, he could have done with the last ounce of vocal heft to project the anger.  Willard White was a classy Minister, providing the centrepoint of the busy last scene whilst vocally conjuring up the ‘deus ex machina‘.  Steven Ebel had a thankless task in the director’s conception of a petulant, emotionally stilted, bullying Jaquino, and I can’t say he convinced.

Mark Elder stepped in for an ailing Kirill Petrenko, and early reviews suggested that the lack of preparation showed.  I have to say it wasn’t apparent to me at this later performance, and the reading more than adequately encompassed the dark and light of the score, with a forward propulsion that seemed to hold the overall structure well.  The orchestra were on fine form.

Of Jürgen Flimm’s production, what is there to say that hasn’t been said?  It is a rather overblown and unwieldy beast that has too many little tricks thrown in to the characterisations to really allow them to get their head of steam.  The sets are impressive, imposing and utterly impractical for the most part, with the first act being too right-and-left-and-up-the-back for a theatre with the extreme sightlines of Covent Garden, and with the drama of Act 2 being slightly compromised by everyone having to scramble up a huge ladder to the roof.  Act 2 is meant to be dark, obviously, but it does help if the audience can see something, and the later solution to this problem is the striplighting littered across the floor, which doesn’t quite fit with the naturalism of the sets.  The chorus work is rather lumpen as well and, no matter how well they sang (and they did), the prisoners had to troop out of their cells, find their position, stop, wait, face the conductor and then begin the Prisoners’ Chorus.  ENO’s production – with them crawling out from under the stage – was a far more heartrending depiction of their ’emerging’ into the open air and light.

All that said, this performance (as per the title) certainly did pack its punch.  If Act 1 and its big setpieces failed to take flight, Act 2 built gloriously to an outpouring of celebration á la Beethoven.  It’s easy to pick at here and there, but the protagonists, the dramatic conducting, and the orchestral and choral performances added up to a very powerful experience, as all the best Fidelios should be.

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