It certainly sounded like Fidelio. Mostly.

Last Sunday, I saw the Royal Opera House’s Elektra, by all accounts a barnstorming performance of the work. Unfortunately for me, someone checking their phone was only one of the ways in which the row in front seemed intent on bobbing about and generally disrupting my ability to engage in the work. So I wasn’t really in a position to write it up and instead will, sadly, just have to write it off.

I bring this up because I had been tempted to book a ticket for a future performance. At one point, there had been a ticket available for Saturday which wasn’t extortionately expensive. Alas, with my partner and a friend, I had a ticket for English National Opera’s Fidelio. Tempted as I was, I forewent the Elektra ticket and stuck to the original plan. Thus, if I display an air of grumpiness about this shoddy, chaotic production, it is reasonable to bear in mind this context.

For shoddy I do believe it was. I am not wholly averse to people trying new things with staples of the repertory, even though Fidelio probably isn’t as much a ‘staple’ as it might justifiably be. The flipside of such creative licence is that it is liable, on occasion, to provoke extreme irritation in some members of the audience. In this case, me and those I was with at the time.

I am on record as not being entirely immune to the dubious charms of Calixto Bieito: his Komische Oper Freischütz was, I thought, quite wonderfully realised, at least up to the point that everyone randomly shot everyone else at the end. My pre-blogging memory is hazy, so I can’t recall whether it was his Don Giovanni or Carmen that I saw at ENO, but on that occasion I emerged, as here, with the sense of an evening, a cast, a chorus, an orchestra and a subsidy thoroughly pissed up the wall.

Musical standards were high, by and large. Ed Gardner led a rather conventional, uneventful sort of reading, up to the very last chorus when he seemed to be anxious not to miss his train, or to get the whole thing over with; either way, by then I’d passed caring. The chorus just about kept up with that, but the men had previously been wonderful in a more expansive account of the Prisoners’ Chorus that closed the first Act.

The central quartet were rather wonderful. Things were kicked off in fine style by the Marzelline of Sarah Tynan, with crystal clear, beautifully articulated singing. Her Jaquino, Adrian Dwyer, captured the frustrations of the character well, with an attractive baritone, well projected. Emma Bell’s Leonore had been required to start proceedings with some spoken dialogue (of which more below), and rose to a rich, resonant performance. Her voice had wonderful body to it, and she spanned both the pathos and urgency of the different sections of ‘Abscheulicher!‘. When Act 2 came around, Stuart Skelton’s heroic tenor rose impressively to portray the despair of Florestan as he threw himself wholeheartedly at the labyrinthine set, conveying a febrile panic at being trapped, and which was made all the more poignant as he sang rapturously and soaringly of his Leonore.

James Creswell was an excellent Rocco, his bass with just the right balance of richness and agility for the role. Philip Horst lacked the requisite heft for a menacing Pizarro, and it came across rather hazy in both tone and timing. Roland Wood managed to make something of the absurd characterisation of the Minister. Both Anton Rich and Ronald Nairns brought the right dose of plagency to the First and Second Prisoner respectively.

Fidelio

Fidelio set (Munich outing) – from ENO’s Flickr, click to head over and see more.

So, back to the production (and !SPOILER ALERT!, just in case anyone thinks there is an element of surprise to be cherished in the chaotic twists and turns of the second act). The perspex-and-striplight set was the basis for an exploration of all our alienation: ‘we are all trapped’ is (I gather) the message; boy, did I feel it. This basic message, even as encapsulated in such an ugly presentation, was less problematic than the randomness that increased as the performance went on. After a lengthy overture (Leonore No. 3), in which the set’s striplights flashed different combinations in a rather headache-inducing way, we realised that the usual dialogue had been replaced by utterances of pseudo-poetic portentousness, which in their turn led frequently to unintended comedy. These interjections turned out to be mercifully brief, almost seeming to fizzle out completely, which meant that the first few numbers relied heavily on prior knowledge in order to flow sensibly. Marzelline went from the opening duet with Jaquino straight into her aria about planning life with Fidelio, but confusingly delivered it to Jaquino. The Act 1 close worked better because it’s a threading together of various numbers, so there is no opportunity for meddlesome interventions.

Act 2 is just plain bizarre. The set tips back – actually quite interestingly, but accompanied by a soundtrack that made me think the Piccadilly Line was being particularly intrusive – so that it was then a maze through which Florestan struggles, before emerging out front to sing his aria. Rocco and Leonore arrive: no gun for Leonore, rather a nearly empty flagon of acid (cue ominous large labels: ‘CORROSIVE’), which she’s been lugging about for ages, for no apparent reason. The set can’t contain the interaction of the characters at this point, so it is relegated to a backdrop, and everyone flails about chaotically on the forestage. The dialogue (written into the music so Bieito is unable to change it) talks about moving the heavy cover of a well, but references to ‘it’ are taken to mean moving Florestan himself, which Rocco and Leonore proceed to try and do, ineffectually, by tugging a bit at his legs. Rocco drinks from a whisky bottle, from which he later forcefeeds Florestan, but not before pouring a bit onto a hanky and attempting, chloroform-like, to smother him into anaesthesia. The disarming of Pizarro is comically presented, and at the intervention of the off-stage horn, she pours the acid over him. When he emerges up from this assault, he is covered in blood, but still manages to complete the remainder of the quartet before feeling the need to rush off for assistance.

Florestan and Leonore sing their jubilant duet, quite robbed of any momentousness by the preceding ‘business’. Then, she produces a small holdall, unzips it, and starts handing him a three-piece suit to get into. She changes into a dress. All the while, members of a string quartet have descended in separate cages from above and are playing a long, meditative section of a Beethoven string quartet. In purely musical terms, this interjection could have been a masterstroke at just this point in the performance, but Bieito’s absolute obsession with preventing us from becoming absorbed means that the characters are getting dressed, they barely interact, and then about a third of the way through, Florestan just wanders off in the same direction as Pizarro (incidentally, barefoot through the puddle of acid). Eventually, Leonore goes off sadly in a different direction, having packed up her bag. An opportunity, and an interesting idea, totally wasted. Why fly the Quartet in from the roof? Why not just have the music emerge as part of the performance? Why not try to match the moment of pathos with genuine emotion from the characters? I am tempted to suggest, because then the opera might start to pull us in, and crass alienation is Bieito’s stock-in-trade.

In the public scene that follows the by-now interminable quartet, the Minister is a bewigged fop. Everyone looks at him in his stage-side box, and when Rocco begins to talk to him, he’s left the box (!) to appear on stage in a few moments. He invites Leonore to unbind an already unbound Florestan, and then shoots him. Fret not! Florestan is not dead, he just has a substantial gunshot wound to the head so, naturally, gets up again. Then the Minister writes ‘FREE’ on a sign and pins it on Florestan. The rest of the chorus have blank signs pinned on them, and he writes FREE on all of them as the chorus closes the opera. We, the audience, are also now free, though in rather less joyous form than Beethoven originally planned it.

As I’ve typed that, I have tapped once again into the irritation that this catalogue of idiocy induced at the time. Bieito seems utterly intent on preventing any form of character or narrative developing. Most of his interventions seemed calculated to keep us at a distance. Unfortunately, for me at any rate, opera (being, after all, a narrative artform) can only stimulate the sort of reflections on the preoccupations with which Bieito professes to be dealing – “justice, love, liberty, loyalty, freedom” – if we can be invited to share a glimpse of what the characters are seeing, feeling and experiencing. If you turn the whole enterprise into an abstract meditation, strip it of narrative (however shaky you think the original is), and throw in such clunky images so frequently, then all of the power of the artform ebbs away. That’s a view I would be willing to rethink for sure, in the face of better execution than this. Unfortunately, that leads to the surfacing of a further nagging thought: Calixto Bieito just isn’t good enough at opera direction to consistently see his ideas take shape on a stage and for them to deliver convincingly what he hopes for them. Too much of this Fidelio appeared to be am-dram stage business elevated only by its international opera house surroundings.

And I am fully aware that some people love his work, and really liked this Fidelio. I’ve seen it described as thought-provoking, thoughtful: it certainly didn’t make me think at all about liberty, love or freedom.  It did provoke a few thoughts on opera, its role, the creative process, and the relationship of that process to the economics of opera production.

Maybe I will have to content myself with that… as I said on Twitter, it’s good to exercise the critical faculties occasionally…

Addendum

Do you want the real irony? As I put the finishing touches to this, I’ve just purchased two tickets to Sebastian Baumgarten’s production of Tannhäuser at Bayreuth next year. That’ll be an interesting write-up…

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