Monday, 13 October 2008

Fidelio, Hungarian State Opera, 10 October 2008

Budapest Opera House

Don Fernando – Gábor Bretz
Don Pizarro – Béla Perencz
Florestan – Thomas Moser
Leonore - Tünde Szabóki
Fidelio – Virgil Horváth
Rocco – Friedemann Kunder
Marzelline – Zita Váradi
Jaquino – Fekete Attila
Two prisoners – Gergely Boncsér and Kázmér Sárkány

Orchestra and Chorus of the Hungarian State Opera (chorus master: Máté Szabó Sipos)
Ádám Fischer (conductor)

Balázs Kovalik (director)
Balázs Kovalik and Angelika Höckner (designs)
Mari Benedek (costumes)

Things aren't what they used to be at the Hungarian State Opera – at least, so I am told, given that this was my first visit. What had remained a bastion of 'traditional' opera production has now felt the sweep of a new broom from its ambitious new leadership, more internationally inclined, headed by Ádám Fischer and Balázs Kovalik. Certainly no one could accuse this Fidelio of hidebound traditionalism.

Sadly, what we had instead was an ill-thought through mishmash, which piled layer of symbolism upon layer of symbolism, with apparently little regard for coherence or even comprehensibility. Yes, the work is concerned with sacrifice, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a good idea to portray the Passion of Christ in confusing tandem with the narrative. (It is also in questionable taste at best to present a Christ with tacky electronic 'bleeding heart' at one point.) Nor is at at all clear how this tallies with presenting what would seem to be Leonore's dream, by having her stand at the bottom level of the stage, in vaguely 'operatic' garb, whilst having a male 'Fidelio' act out her moves on another - until, of course, she reveals her true self, although even then she remains down below. And the garish colour-coding did not seem to mean anything in particular, although it was preferable to the multicoloured 'celebration' of the final scene, in which we seemed for no particular reason to have entered the world of Flower Power. Embarrassed and embarrassing clapping from the chorus disrupted the music then too. And what was the point of the strange Angela Merkel look-alike, who strolled along the stage at the end? Kovalik and his team needed to go back to the drawing board.

Musically, the story was more mixed. The orchestra played superbly throughout, its strings glowing with warmth and the woodwind especially characterful. The horns, bar the very odd cracked note - an almost unavoidable hazard - were beautiful indeed, crucial in this work. I thought the all-important off-stage trumpet a little too distant, but never mind. Ádám Fischer's reading did not quite seem to have settled down. There were some good things in it, although it never really acheived the symphonic stature that characterises great performances of Fidelio. On occasion, there was a distinct Italianate tintá; the music might have been by Rossini. This, however, merely stood out rather than giving the impression of a particular idea. Some might have found such an idea refreshing; I suspect that I should still have thought it quite inappropriate.

There were also some odd decisions regarding the version of the work used. This was not straight 1814, since the 1805 ordering of the opening was employed. I am not sure that anything is really gained by this; tonal development tends rather strongly to suggest that the later ordering is better. Far more questionable was the reversion to the ‘tradition’ of performing the Leonore III overture prior to the final scene. I am quite aware of the distinguished pedigree for such a practice, yet here as ever the music overpowered what came after - not least given the deflating tendencies of the production. What could work under Furtwängler and doubtless under Mahler simply did not here, although the performance considered on its own terms was good, if somewhat removed from the outstanding performance the audience thought it had heard. Could there be a worse point at which to applaud?! The situation was rendered far worse by Fischer having the orchestra stand twice (!) to acknowledge the applause.

Tünde Szabóki was not a great Leonore; nor was she a particular disappointment. She sang for the most part musically but without truly making her mark upon the role as many great artists have done. The competition is terrifyingly fierce, of course, but such is life. Thomas Moser was adequate, though little more than that, as Florestan. (I have heard worse but then one nearly always has in such roles.) Smaller roles were once again generally adequately taken, with three exceptions. Zita Váradi was simply terrible as Marzelline, her tuning all over the place. Friedemann Kunde could act as Rocco but no longer appeared to possess a voice, as was painfully evident in his duet with Béla Perencz's lightweight yet musical Pizarro. It was a relief, then, to hear in Gábor Bretz a Fernando as handsome of voice as of face; nevertheless, a Fernando can hardly a Fidelio make.