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Fidelio – Coliseum, London

Composer: Beethoven

Director: Calixto Bieito

Reviewer: Christopher Owen

[rating:2]

Fidelio, English National Opera 2013When Leonore suspects her husband Florestan is being held captive by Don Pizarro in his intricate prison fortress, she disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio and assists to the prison guard while secretly in search for her love and aiming to win the fight over injustice. Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera and while the score is littered with shadows of his musical genius played beautifully here by the orchestra, the staging simply does not match the colour and feel of the piece itself.

The Coliseum curtain rises to expose an neat, angular, maze like structure that fills the stage, and includes layer upon layer of winding steel, perspex and strip lights to illustrate the seemingly never ending prison both mentally and physically inhabited by the characters, which visually works well and feels very intimidating to witness. The cast crawl, climb and sprawl over the frame like rats looking for a way out of the sewers, creating a very intimidating atmosphere during the opening segment. The set is also very impressive in he opening to act two, where we meet Florestan – the prisoner for the first time. The scene consists of the entire structure falling (very slowly) ninety degrees to actually form a maze to the dungeon where he is being kept, a simple, yet effective and impressive design and moment.

Unfortunately, the rest of the production just does not seem to match the music up with whatever ‘radical’ vision that Calixto Bieito has had, often feeling disjointed and full of mixed signals. Using a very plain colour scheme of dirty brown and grey suits, broken only by an occasional harsh bright white or green light (making the whole stage look continuously like the opening credits to Breaking Bad), the whole first act blends into one, and leaves it hard to know what is happening, unless you have studied the synopsis in the programme. There are strange segments of spoken word dotted in among the sweeping passages of music, which often feel odd and out of place and drain the performance of any pace or energy.

Though the libretto has been translated into English, frequently overlapping voices muddy the lyrical clarity and the surtitling is often out of sync and little help. It takes a long time for the chorus to be allowed to sing a note, and when they do, the opera is better for it; there is real need to match the sometimes powerful music with force of so many voices and when that happens, Fidelio shows faint sparks of life.

There are a few moments of delight, much more so in the second act, and especially when Stuart Skelton (Florestan) gets a chance to let his impressive and accurate voice soar, filling the Coliseum with a richness and emotion that the opera deserves. The confrontation between Pizarro and Leonore when she is revealed, works well. But sadly, when the two lovers are finally reunited, there is no apparent love, romance, or connection between them. It is an almost static duet, where the couple barely touch, and instead take the time to change their clothes. More emotion, though not necessarily of the right sort, is found in the subsequent scene when a string quartet is lowered above them in three floating cages.

Fidelio has beautiful lyrical passages of music, sung excellently by a tremendous cast, played elegantly by the orchestra, and set well on an interesting looking stage. But the whole production is ultimately let down by a bland, cold and on the whole, unengaging direction which is hard to get past. This version of Beethoven’s ‘masterpiece’ is not to everyone’s taste, some will get more from the production than others, but most of all this will divide opinion. This is more than apparent during the curtain call where some members of the audience feel it necessary to show their negative reaction, audibly. A production that will divide opinion, and provoke thought and conversation, just maybe not for the intended reasons.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Runs until 17th October

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