Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
Libretto: Joseph Sonnleithner, with revisions by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke
Conductor: Paul Daniel
Beethoven’s only opera – a tale of imprisonment, isolation and despair – will doubtless resonate with audiences fresh from months of confinement. This concert version of Fidelio was itself a victim of the pandemic when a second lockdown scuppered plans for a rearranged Autumn tour last year. But a line towards the end of the performance celebrating the redemptive power of love perfectly captured the relief that must have washed across the enthusiastic if distanced audience dotted around the empty spaces of the Lowry’s Lyric: “Blessed be the day we longed for but never dared to expect.” It was live theatre – not quite as we know it – but still able to move, charm, and at times dazzle.
Opera North more than deserved the warm and generous ovation at the curtain for reminding us all what we have been missing. Seven months after a live-streamed version from an empty Leeds Town Hall, the critically acclaimed show was back, the cast unchanged and the orchestra now under the careful control of new director Paul Daniel. A simple staging, the chorus at the rear, carefully distanced, actors peeling off masks as they left backstage, was decorated with sumptuous golden banners, glittering like artworks by Gustav Klimt.
Soprano Rachel Nicholls shone as Leonore, who goes undercover as Fidelio, a male prison guard, and fights to free her husband, Florestan, from the murderous vengeful wrath of Don Pizarro, the evil prison governor played by bass-baritone Robert Hayward. Bass Brindley Sherratt brings some human warmth amid the squalor of attempted political murder as Rocco, a jailor doing his best under terrible conditions. Soprano Fflur Wynn as Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter and tenor Oliver Johnston as his sidekick Jaquino provide a comic turn as young lovers with varying levels of enthusiasm for each other.
The story is narrated in English by bass-baritone Matthew Stiff, as presiding judge Don Fernando, decked out in a black gown. But it is the arrival of tenor Toby Spence’s Florestan at the start of Act II that marks a dramatic shift in proceedings, making us believe and feel the misery of what it is to rot for daring to speak the truth to power. Was I the only one to think of the modern martyrs who incurred the wrath of the United States? Julian Assange remains behind bars, largely ignored as he awaits extradition and incarceration for what many call fearless journalism.
The orchestra and chorus were on good form and swept us into the Act ll finale: heroic Leonore is revealed; Florestan is saved from suffering and death; love triumphs over cruelty. The final moments of euphoria provided some genuine flashes of Beethoven’s raw power if the stirring eulogy to all the magnificent women felt a little overstated. The painful separation of performers and audiences is not quite over but we are beginning to remember the magic of coming together – Opera North and the Lowry deserve huge credit for making this happen.
The final performance of Fidelio is at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall on Saturday, 19 June.
Reviewed on 15 June 2021