Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Fidelio, Opera Holland Park, 5 July 2010

Leonore – Yvonne Howard
Florestan – Tom Randle
Rocco – Stephen Richardson
Marzelline – Sarah Redgwick
Jacquino – Nicky Spence
Don Pizarro – Phillip Joll
Don Fernando – Njabulo Madlala
First Prisoner – Peter Kent
Second Prisoner – Henry Grant Kerswell

Olivia Fuchs (director)
Jamie Vartan (designs)
Colin Grenfell (lighting)
Clare Whistler (choreography)

Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Peter Robinson (conductor)

Olivia Fuchs’s production of Fidelio earned plaudits upon its first outing in 2003; though I did not see it then, it remains just as relevant and disturbing today. Guantánamo Bay references, brought out both in the stage direction and in Jamie Vartan’s excellent designs, need to be hammered home just as much as they did then. The United States may have a new administration and this country may have a new government, but the camp of infamy remains open for business and the war criminals who led us into Afghanistan and Iraq have never been tried. Even if some resolution had been reached, one would not need to look far to find equally urgent cases: Burma, Gaza, Tibet, let alone the domestic prisons of our own countries, cynically packed with unfortunate souls who have no reason to be there, solely in order to keep the likes of the Daily Mail happy – though when are such organs of poujadisme ever satisfied? This production’s revelation of the prisoners in their orange jumpsuits is shocking enough, but the way in which they are cowed, in need of the light yet almost unable to cope with it, is something to shame not only those who will never see it but those who have voted for or at least tacitly assented to such barbarism, even those of us who abhor it and yet have been unsuccessful in bringing it to an end.

It is, of course, tiresome to have to confront those who reckon Fidelio a failure; they so spectacularly miss the point that this is a work about freedom, and not in any sense that our political overlords would understand. Yet a production such as this might actually accomplish that confrontation for us. Fuchs’s reappraisal of Jacquino transforms a bit part into something truly horrifying: doubtless not an evil person, but a stupid one, brutalised by the situation, who engages in relatively ‘low-level’ abuse, or so the politicians would see it, of the prisoners. In another setting, he would doubtless be chanting ‘harmless’ nationalist slogans at a soccer match. And why should we trust the minister, who arrives with sinister bodyguards in shades? Likewise, the ‘media’, desperate to be let in to snap the first photographs? This souring of the final victory may not have been what Beethoven intended, but it works, and there is no harm in undercutting the music just a little, when it is done so well. It need not be done so every time, but is a valid option when confronted with an age of barbarism beyond anything the composer could have imagined.

Unfortunately, this proved to be very much a tale of the production and, to a lesser extent, the singing. Peter Robinson was the archetypal Kapellmeister in his conducting. There was no sense of the music meaning anything at all to him, let alone the astounding instantiation of a once-radical notion of bourgeois freedom. All he did was beat time. One could not only hear every bar line; one could set an atomic clock by the metronomic beat. The reading, or rather rendition – ‘extraordinary’ in its way – was free of Harnoncourtisms or worse, save for the kettledrum sticks, but that is the best one could say. The City of London Sinfonia played well enough, horns emerging triumphant from their ordeal in ‘Komm, Hoffnung’. Yet, even in a small performance space such as this, the strings were too small in number. One needs to be drowned in, driven on by, a torrent of symphonic lava. As it was, one concentrated on the fire of the production, with the orchestral contribution reduced to something akin to a soundtrack. This was not the orchestra’s fault at all, but a string section of can only do so much.

The soloists compensated considerably. Tom Randle has always seemed to me a highly intelligent musician and so he was again here. His Florestan could only really work in a small-scale performance, but after initial wavering intonation on his cruel opening ‘Gott!’, he threw his all into the role, emerging with true musico-dramatic credibility. Jonas Kaufmann in Paris is an experience I shall never forget, but until there is opportunity to see and to hear his astonishing assumption again, this will do fine. Yvonne Howard was a sincere Leonore. One may have heard greater vocal power and beauty, but she convinced on stage, and navigated Beethoven’s often cruel demands without faltering. The Pizarro and Fernando were unimpressive, but Sarah Redgwick was a feisty, characterful Marzelline. Stephen Richardson was unusually credible as the compromised Rocco, who manages yet to do the right thing: a truly Beethovenian inspiration. Richardson’s fine command of the vocal text was a significant contributing factor here. Nicky Spence was equally convincing in the characterisation of Fuchs’s reappraised Jacquino. As for the dialogue, it is rarely anything but a trial when delivered by non-native speakers; I have heard worse though.

There were drawbacks, then, significantly so in terms of the musical direction. This is not a Fidelio one would wish simply to hear. But such are the production's strength and conviction that it remains necessary to see it.