Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Director: Tobias Kratze
A French revolution story in German on an English stage, Beethoven’s Fidelio was one of the last productions performed at the Royal Opera House before lockdown and now comes to the iPlayer as a two hour filmed performance as part of wider arts coverage providing a season of work new to television. Directed by Tobias Kratze and conducted by Antonio Pappano, this experimental approach to Beethoven’s only opera proves an uneasy marriage.
With husband Florestan incarcerated for political activities, Leonore disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, before the story begins and takes a job working for the jailer Rocco. When the imminent arrival of the Governor signals the death of the prisoner, Leonore must do all she can to save her husband’s life. Meanwhile, unaware of her disguise, Rocco’s daughter Marzelline has fallen in love with Fedelio and wants him for herself.
For the more than an hour Kratze’s production has everything going for it, the staging and setting are wonderful, the storytelling a delight, and the cast of characters created with empathy. Act One is truly enjoyable, not least for Rainer Sellmaier’s multipurpose courtyard set in tones of blue-grey that is both simple and evocative. When rooms slide onto the stage from the wings like a cabinet drawer being opened the mini sets within are expressively, if not overly, detailed. When Simon Neal’s evil Don Pizzaro rides in on a genuine black horse the illusion, and the audience’s immersion, feels complete.
It is such a shame then that Act Two throws away so much of this good work with a contemporary staging that smacks of a public courtroom in which the chorus take the form of modern onlookers watching the characters (still in period garb) debate the pitfalls of freedom. The harried and uneasy faces of the crowd are projected at scale onto the back wall, the performers’ self-conscious acting jarring with the more naturalistic tone of the earlier story.
When a woman is seen snacking as she enjoys the unfolding drama, you may lose all patience with a technical choice that is both distracting and crass. Kratze’s point is clear, that we all enjoy being on the side-lines of other people’s lives, caught up in the romantic and political entanglements we can judge from afar. Yet classic works, be they theatre, opera, novels or music, resonate through the generations because we share a common experience of humanity, but trying so hard to make them ‘relevant’ serves only to distance the audience from this final Act, loosing the gel and reducing the production. Having invested so much in Act One, the characters and the performers deserve more.
Lise Davidsen’s Fidelio is a treat, however, and so nice to see two powerful female roles at the centre of a production that are full of agency. Davidsen navigates between dedicated employee, impassioned wife and awkward lover with ease, building her strength and daring as the opportunity to see her husband finally presents itself. It is a towering performance that overcomes the awkward choices of Act Two to hold the audience in the story.
Amanda Forsythe’s sympathetic Marzelline is equally enjoyable, transformed by love for Fidelio and unwilling to settle for the overeager attentions of Jaquino (Robin Tritschler). There are comic possibilities within the role, but Forsythe never allows Marzelline to look ridiculous, despite being fooled, exuding a spirited loneliness that sets her on a new path in Act Two.
Inevitably when the audience waits for a heavily built-up character to appear, David Butt Philip’s Florestan is half the man his wife proves to be, but it is a strong supporting cast. When Kratze leaves well alone, Beethoven’s themes including the separation between revolutionary fervour and the founding of a more humane way of living shine through, capturing a crucial moment of decision-making in which then, as now, societies must decide whether they look to the past or the future.
Available here until June 2021