Sunday 21 December 2008

Fidelio, Opéra national de Paris, 18 December 2008

Palais Garnier

Don Fernando – Paul Gay
Don Pizarro – Alan Held
Florestan – Jonas Kaufmann
Leonore – Angela Denoke
Rocco – Kurt Rydl
Marzelline – Julia Kleiter
Jaquino – Ales Briscein
First Prisoner – Jason Bridges
Second Prisoner – Ugo Rabec

Johan Simons (director)
Jan Versweyveld (scenery and lighting)
Greta Goiris (costumes)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Winfried Maczewski)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Sylvain Cambreling (conductor)

This was the best Fidelio I have seen in the theatre. By far the best performance I have heard in the flesh was a concert performance with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis, but the others, all in the opera house, were all let down by a variety of factors, not least by, though not restricted to, their conductors. Certain musicians notwithstanding, ours does not seem to be an age that responds well to Beethoven. I am, then, delighted to report that this new Paris production, whilst far from perfect, was much better than reports had led me to expect.

For one thing – and, when it comes to Beethoven this is a very big thing indeed – the orchestra was on excellent from. It had weight, so often lacking nowadays in this music; it had rhythmic security; nor was it without human tenderness. Sylvain Cambreling, the unofficial house conductor, presented a controversial version of the score. Opening with the least-known Leonore overture, no.1, he proceeded to restore an earlier plan, whereby Beethoven proceeded from aria, to duet, to trio, to quartet, stressing an underlying original tonality of C major. There seems to be something of a fashion for tampering with Fidelio at the moment; the Hungarian State Opera did so earlier this season. I was not ultimately persuaded by Cambreling’s decisions but at least they had some rationale behind them. And how many opportunities is one likely to have to hear Leonore I in the theatre? At least we were spared the dramatic nonsense, again perpetrated in Budapest, of Leonore III during the second act. (And yes, I am well aware of the illustrious roll-call of conductors who once followed this practice. Yet what Mahler or Furtwängler might have been able to get away with is best disregarded by mere mortals.) Moreover, whilst there were certain tempi decisions with which I might have disagreed, for instance an excessively fast, even carefree first act March, Cambreling spared us the indignities of metronomic ‘authenticity’. There was even the odd occasion when I thought him a little slow. It was welcome to hear ‘O namenlose Freude!’ as something other than the typical unmusical rush, but starting at the speed it did, it should have gathered momentum at some point. As I said above, Colin Davis remains hors concours from my otherwise disappointing live experience of the work. Yet Cambreling’s reading was vastly superior to the dullness of Richard Hickox (English National Opera), to Antonio Pappano (Royal Opera), less out of his depth than failing even to enter the Beethovenian shallows, or to the straightforwardly inappropriate veering towards Rossini (!) of Ádám Fischer (Budapest). The great recorded legacy remains, of course, another matter entirely.

There was another controversial aspect to the version of Fidelio presented. Gérard Mortier, in honour of whose sixty-fifth birthday the first performance of this production was mounted, had decided that the spoken dialogue was nowadays of dubious theatrical value. Alternative dialogue was therefore commissioned from Martin Mosebach. I am not at all sure that there is anything especially wrong with what we usually hear – for one thing, its familiarity has made it part of our expectation of ‘the work’ – but I was quite sure that this was no improvement. Some of it was perfectly acceptable, although even then I could not quite understand why it should be preferred. However, it made for a considerably longer evening than otherwise might have been, not least given the typical inability – this goes for every performance of Fidelio I have attended, bar that in English – of the non-Germans in the cast to speak the language with credibility. One can generally hear every word, partly because it is spoken at half-speed. Some of the new text was also rather peculiar. At the beginning, we hard Marzelline ponder at some length over what sort of man she would prefer. Having considered the hairier option, she proceeded to wonder about a man who was more like a woman. The difficulty of accepting Leonore’s disguise as Fidelio may detain literal-minded souls, but I am not sure that broaching a ‘bi-curious’ interpretation of Marzelline would have assisted them.

The production was in general convincing. It was not unforgettable, but nor was it married to an irrelevant concept or concepts. (I think here of Balázs Kovalik’s production in Budapest, where all sorts of odd ideas did battle against one other.) The surveillance cameras in a sinister control room during the first act pointed to a terrifying feature of our own society. Florestan was always being watched, just as we are. And what went on around? People attended to their ‘daily lives’ – for such, of course, is the dramatic material of the first half of the first act – some of them doubtless quite sure that, in their accustomed Daily Mail-speak, they had ‘nothing to hide’. How many days’ detention without trial would New Labour have inflicted upon Florestan? Ask Pizarro. Of course, Johan Simons is unlikely to have had specifically British references in mind, but the point is increasingly general in Western societies; it is just rather more advanced in my own. There was a contrasting timelessness to the dungeon scene. Whilst there is, of course, a place for specific references and we can hardly fail to think of Guantánamo, it is worth reminding ourselves that such obscenities can happen at any time, in any place. The willingness of human beings to torture has been reaffirmed through scientific experiment; it is part of the role of culture, of works such as Fidelio, to make us rise above such barbarism.

In the title role, Angela Denoke sometimes struggled vocally. There were moments when her voice was simply not strong enough, although not so many as I had expected from other reports. However, she responded readily to the text – both spoken and sung – and brought her considerable skills as a singing actress to the role. Whilst this was not a performance I should wish simply to hear on a recording, I was often gripped by it on stage. Alan Held oozed malevolence as Don Pizarro, though I thought his hysterical laughter overdone and strangely camp: more Rocky than Rocco Horror. Kurt Rydl was a late substitute for Franz-Josef Selig as the jailkeeper. He acted splendidly: quite an achievement, when he could hardly have had close acquaintance with the production. However, he exhibited considerable wobble. I also found it dramatically odd to have so much blacker a voice in this role than for Pizarro. (Admittedly, that is not a problem confined to this production.) Julia Kleiter and Ales Briscein were lively and attentive as Marzelline and Jaquino, whilst Paul Gay impressed as Don Fernando.

But the undoubted star of the show was Jonas Kaufmann. I cannot imagine that there has ever been a better Florestan. He exhibited a heroism to rival that of Jon Vickers, albeit without the vocal oddness. Kaufmann displayed an an astonishing range, not only of dynamics, but also of timbre. The crescendo upon his first note, delivered head down to the floor, starting off mezza voce and leading up to a radiant, ringing, yet never crude fortissimo, was something I suspect I shall never experience again – unless, of course, it comes from him. He managed to sound utterly credible both as a starved, tortured prisoner and as a virile incarnation of freedom. Moreover, his acting was on an equally exalted level, marrying perfectly with the vocal portrayal. This Fidelio, even had it lacked other virtues, would have been justified by Jonas Kaufmann alone.