Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor: Paul Daniel
On a remarkable evening in Leeds Town Hall, we all came stumbling into the sunlight like the prisoners in Don Pizarro’s jail. This production has been on a journey as full of hope and disappointment as our lives during lockdowns 1, 2 and 3: scheduled for a live concert performance late last year, cancelled, replaced by an acclaimed live stream and finally emerging for four concert performances.
For the first Opera North full-scale (pretty much) opera performances, the restrictions of the time have been strictly observed without diminishing the musical or emotional impact. Fidelio is presented in an edition for reduced forces for orchestra (33 pieces can still make a more than exciting sound) and with a smaller, socially distanced chorus. It is a concert performance, not a semi-staging, with no props and the soloists keeping their distance from each other, but all giving vividly expressive performances.
Fidelio is very much an opera for our times. Its opposition to tyranny resonates in all the many countries where regime opponents are imprisoned, tortured, murdered or poisoned, but its message of freedom and hope speaks equally to our Covid-stricken society. Florestan, an honourable man, has long been imprisoned by the corrupt Don Pizarro. His wife, Leonore, disguised as the youth Fidelio, gets a job at the prison with the apparently forlorn hope of freeing him before Pizarro’s murderous intentions are fulfilled. Along the way a pleasing, but rather sad, sidebar to the story comes when Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter, falls in love with the handsome young man Fidelio. The happy ending – for all except Marzelline and, of course, Pizarro – comes via a combination of Leonore’s heroism and the arrival of the King’s Minister.
Fidelio is technically not an opera, but a Singspiel, that is, a stage work with spoken dialogue linking the arias and ensembles. To some the dialogue is problematic anyway and the absence of costume, props and physical interaction would have made it absurd. A solution of elegant simplicity has been found in a clever commentary by David Pountney – in English, of course, unlike the singing. The Minister, looking through the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reads out selected bits of testimony to link the musical numbers, then Matthew Stiff rises from his seat to take a suitably dignified part in the final denouement.
Opera North has been able to reassemble the stunning cast that made the streamed version, including several company favourites, but also two newcomers who give superb performances. In demand internationally as a Wagner soprano, Rachel Nicholls as Leonore has all the heft that implies in a thrilling performance of rare excitement that radiates humanity, not least in the socially distant, emotionally joined exchanges with Toby Spence’s heroic Florestan whose opening crescendo from nothing on the word “Gott” summons up the cavern of his cell in the comfort of the Town Hall.
Brindley Sherratt as Rocco, the jailer, is another whose performance defies the limitations of a concert performance, his interpretation of a conscience-troubled pragmatist as striking as his resonant, rock-solid bass. Robert Hayward, chillingly barking out Pizarro’s poison, would have chewed the scenery, had there been any. Fflur Wyn and Oliver Johnston get rather by-passed by events as Marzelline and her hapless lover Jaquino, but both hit their marks every time, Wyn’s crystalline soprano topping many early ensembles and Johnston’s robust lyricism worth a better fate than rejection.
The only change to the live stream is the appearance as conductor of former Music Director Paul Daniel, clearly relishing his return. To this reviewer almost the highpoint of the evening, despite all that was to come (including stirring work from the reduced chorus), was the explosion of orchestral sound in Daniel’s dynamic account of the overture – that’s what we’ve been missing!
In the programme Rachel Nicholls and Toby Spence say that the two things missing from the livestream were an audience and a post-performance pint – all we can add to that is “Cheers!”.
Runs until 12th June with further performances in Nottingham and Salford