Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth
In many ways Fidelio is a perfect fit for an opera company to perform in late 2020. This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth; in fact, the Opera North performance pretty much coincided with the date of the composer’s birth in 1770. Then there are its theme of rescue from isolation and mortal danger and its message of hope – both appropriate at this time.
Based on a true story, transposed from France to Spain, Fidelio tells of the devotion of Leonore to her husband, Florestan, who has been imprisoned in solitary confinement for political and personal reasons by Don Pizarro who is progressively starving his prisoner to death. Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, takes service in the prison with Head Warder Rocco whose daughter Marzelline inconveniently falls in love with the young “man”, ignoring the attentions of Jaquino, Rocco’s assistant. In the end Pizarro plans to kill Florestan, but is thwarted by a combination of Leonore’s heroism and the arrival of a Government Minister who intervenes to restore justice.
There is, however, one problem with Fidelio 2020. Only a socially distanced concert performance is possible – indeed, a series of live concert performances was planned, unfortunately reduced to one livestream – and Fidelio has chunks of spoken dialogue. To include it (in English or German) would have been highly unconvincing; to omit it would have blurred the narrative.
Opera North’s ingenious solution is to use the Minister (Matthew Stiff) as a narrator. On an island in the auditorium he shuffles his papers and makes notes; he is in charge of some sort of Peace and Reconciliation Commission. In a very economical narrative, written by David Pountney, purporting to be evidence to the commission, he fills the gaps in the story-line before making his dramatic appearance on stage. The arias, ensembles and choruses are given in German with English sub-titles on screen.
Opera North is not given to score-bound concert performances. Here, despite social distancing and minimal movement, the result is remarkably dramatic. Costumes are all dark, conventionally modern, but neatly differentiated to suggest character. Details register: for example, as the overture is coming to an end, the singers in the first scene enter in darkness, a spotlight picks out Leonore, she takes off her wedding ring and fingers it lovingly.
In Matthew Eberhardt’s staging conviction in gesture, stance and facial expression supplements superb vocal performances. Robert Hayward’s Don Pizarro projects bitterness and menace in every barked phrase and impatient gesture. In Brindley Sherratt’s fine performance Rocco becomes almost the most interesting character in the opera: from bluff authority with Marzelline, Fidelio and Jaquino to balancing self-interest with honesty with Don Pizarro – a study in pragmatism with a conscience.
At the centre of the action as Leonore Rachel Nicholls initially keeps the sub-text constantly before us: she takes part in scenes of almost cosy domesticity while always her terrifying task awaits her. Nicholls’ face projects unease, her assured vocal performance anything but. When Toby Spence’s heroically agonised Florestan finally appears, the intensity of their reconciliation transcends social distancing. Fflur Wyn’s bright soprano and optimistic manner as Marzelline and Oliver Johnston’s cleanly sung, perpetually disappointed Jaquino make their mark in two characters who get rather a raw deal from Beethoven, their disappointments and betrayals forgotten in the great scheme of things.
Distancing requires the use of Francis Griffin’s reduction of the orchestra to 33 pieces (single woodwinds, for instance), but under the distinguished conductor Mark Wigglesworth, remarkably making his Opera North debut, both orchestra and chorus display their customary authority.
Streamed HERE until 4th January