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Fidelio, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff | reviews, news & interviews

Fidelio, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Fidelio, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Unworthy, weary and poorly sung - what a contrast to the Meistersinger

'Beethoven’s great score is wretchedly served, and his drama goes rapidly down the cistern'

In fact Giuseppe Frigeni’s production and sets have already been seen in Bordeaux, so perhaps it’s more that the novelty by now has worn off. Either way, it’s a miserable affair, devoid of movement or dramatic tension, obscure in its characterisation and motivation, poorly lit and self-evidently costumed not just for a different cast, but for a different race of men and women.

It has some of the worst singing I’ve encountered on the professional stage for many a year; and where the singing is good, it mostly comes from the wrong kind of vocal chords. In Meistersinger the orchestra played like well-drilled angels for their music director, Lothar Koenigs; here for him they play like a pick-up band of goodish players. Even the WNO chorus is something less than wonderful, an extremely rare event.

What has gone wrong? It’s always hard to pin down the cause of these occasional disasters (and of course they happen to every company at one time or another). But this show reeks of under-preparation and lack of direction. The very first bars of the overture on the first night sounded coarse and untidy, and though matters improved, the playing remained patchy with a few highlights, notably some lovely oboe work in Act Two.

Behind the overture Frigeni offers the now inevitable dumb-show of “explanation” in which what one takes to be the main characters drift around gesturing to one another, coming and going, in an utterly babyish, unhelpful, and above all (because it’s a very undramatic overture) musically inapt fashion. A huge steel cage swivels round then settles beside an elegant rococo doorway: the production’s insignia, such as they are – the cause and the effect.

When the non-existent curtain rises, the same idiom persists. The singers circle round each other more or less irrelevantly, and much of the action proceeds as a kind of mime, since Frigeni drops most of the dialogue, and what takes place seems completely unmotivated in any real sense. The canon quartet is given no spoken context at all, and when Leonore and Marzelline join hands at the end it’s as if they were enacting some impenetrable ritual, and one half-expects a Tippett-like magus figure to appear in a white cloak.

The prisoners are let out into the yard for no known reason. In the dungeon scene, Rocco and Leonore pretend to be in danger from some cavernous menace that Frigeni forgot to design; then suddenly aren’t any more. Of personal electricity between them and Florestan there is little or none. Timing, placing, chemistry: all practically zero.

Some of the blame lies with Amélie Haas’s costumes, some with the singers themselves. Whoever originally wore Leonore’s grey suit, I’ll wager she wasn’t Lisa Milne’s shape; it’s idle to pretend such things are unimportant, because opera is after all theatre, and theatre is a visual medium. Milne is a lovely singer, but she is no Leonore, at least not yet. She lacks weight in the lower voice, while the top is that of a Susanna or a Micaëla, both parts that she has sung with success.

Dennis O’Neill, a great singer for this company in the past, should please retire with a knighthood. His Florestan is simply not viable: forced and approximate, with poor German and an appearance one can only describe as that of an ageing tenor. Unkind? Thousands of punters are paying big money to see and hear him. They deserve better.

Of the rest, Elizabeth Donovan’s Marzelline is the one bit of casting that both looks and sounds right. Her opening duet with Jaquino (Robin Tritschler) and her song are charming, though marred by the drifting and the dumbshow. Clive Bayley makes an interesting attempt to hit off Rocco’s horse-sense humanity, but spoils it by snapping at the notes. Robert Hayward’s Pizarro, a fine, villainous SS colonel, barks his part with such ferocity that the notes almost vanish. Quentin Hayes’s Don Fernando is upstaged and barely audible.

At the helm of all this, Koenigs’s role is mysterious. There is energy in his conducting, but of a brusque, unsubtle kind. Occasional beauties emerge like memories of something lost. But as a whole Beethoven’s great score is wretchedly served, and his drama – naïve, improbable, intractable but when done right overwhelming – goes rapidly down the cistern.

  • Fidelio at the Wales Millennium Centre on 25 Sep and 1 and 8 Oct, then touring
Disasters happen to every company at one time or another, but this show reeks of under-preparation and lack of direction.

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Whilst I agree that the first night of this production was very disappointing, I do think you're far too harsh on Dennis O'Neill who I thought was excellent. Florestan is supposed to be near death when he is found in Act II. I thought he conveyed his sense of despair most movingly. In fact, I felt the performance only started to gel when his presence on stage provided a dramatic focus.

Since much of the action happens in the dark in this appalling lit production, even when the prisoners get out into the fresh air and warm sunshine, the cast had little chance to show any acting skill. Unfortunately there seems to be a trend in many of the WNO productions in the WMC to rely on strong side and back lighting and very little from front of house thus leaving singers with shadows down the centre of their faces or disappearing into the shadow cast by the person standing next to them. As an amateur lighting designer of many years practice I have always understood that the primary purpose of stage lighting is to make the actors visible to the audience (and by the way reflection works this light should of necessity mostly come from the location of the viewers) and only secondly to create mood and effect.

Why did everybody walk bakwards for much of the time? Some obliqiue and subltle retrograde reference by the producer? Or did the performers pay some indirect reference to the way WNO is going?

Mr. Welsh doesn't even try to write a proper review, he just want show us, that he is quite frustrated about the fact that not all artists share his point of view on art. Please make your own production of Fidelio and be more careful about judging other peoples work.

Well, that made no sense at all, Robert, except for the last sentence - and what do you want, that all critics direct? That all directors try to write? Absurd.

Hi........ I saw the production on Friday 1st October. The audience of the WNO deserve better than Dennis O'Neill. His singing was poor, verging on shouting. He forgeo to sing one line of the libretto near the end of act two and his stage presence is non existent. There are far better tenors who deserve a chance to appear on the stage. Rocco was sung exceptionally well and was the star of the show. Lisa Milne did not suit the part that well but did a workman like job. The orchestra supported the singers well without their usual problem overwhelming them with brass but did not lift the performance of the entire cast. The WNO chorus disappointed, only coming to life at the very end of the production. A better production than WNOs last attempt at Fidelio.

I have just seen this production in Bristol and I regret to report that it has not improved in any respect. This badly conceived production does not have much scope in which to grow though some re-casting might help it along a little. However I suspect part of the problem was that the cast could not find it in their hearts to sing with the commitment required. Why did WNO bring in this production from Bordeaux when it was clearly misconceived and lacking any intellectual heft?

I saw this production in Birmingham on Friday. It was a total disaster. I love this opera, but hated this production. It fell flat on its face. And what happened to the props? Did they fall off the van on the way from Wales? How can you dig without spades, and where was the water bottle and crust of bread? Imagination is one thing, but this production had none and encouraged none. Comments from others on the way out were all very dismissive. WNO - you can do better than this.

I too saw this in Birmingham on Friday and was non-plussed at the production too, much as I love the music, I also found the volume of WNO orchestra overpowering at times, or is that Hippodrome acoustics?. More engaging though was the opportunity for the two who sang in place of the indisposed Dennis O'Neill and Elizabeth Donovan as Florestan and Marrzeline - Geraint Dodd and Laura Pooley. What did anyone think? (I'm biased!)

I've never heard anything more dreadful or disasterous, or seen anything more unappealing as Lisa Milne's Leonore. She looked like a beached whale, hung out to dry-ridiculous! I also can't understand for the life of me, how this vocally inept singer managed to get through the door of the New York Metropolitan Opera, physically and vocally that is. She ruined Beethoven's great masterpiece, Fidelio. Shame on Welsh National Opera for hiring such an inept singer. Boooooooooooooo!

Sorry I destroyed Fidelio for you. Thank you for your comments regarding my physical appearance and vocal technique. I will consider giving up singing now. I have never thought I was a good singer and you have thankfully made me realise that I would be better off doing something else instead.

I fear that's the kind of all-out attack on a previously distinguished singer which we do try to steer clear of here, or at least try to qualify; imagine how hurtful the soprano would find it to read. I don't doubt that Lisa Milne has been 'overparted' as Leonore, and that you deserved your moneysworth, but FWIW she was a very moving Marzelline - more the mark - at Glyndebourne, and has been a fine Mozartian (Mackerras, I think, admired her), as well as a heartbreaking Anne Trulove (absolutely the best I've seen) in the underrated ENO production of The Rake's Progress. So I really do think your justifiable anger could be a little mitigated by knowledge of her good pedigree.

Mr. Nice Should the Soprano in question find my comments hurtful, then perhaps she ought to sing repertoire more to her vocal abilities. Granted, I've never seen or heard anything of Lisa Milne, other than this performance, but first impressions are binding. A word of warning. If she takes it upon herself to sing roles outside her vocal capabilities, she might jeopardise her future prospects as a singer. Now that would be more hurtful for her than anything I've written.

Yes. They were hurtful. Extremely. But you are entitled to your opinion. I now know however what an ugly performer I am, both physically and vocally. Time to stop (me that is, not you).

There's no reason to stop singing if that is your career, just because of what someone wrote. Your Mozart recordings are nice.

Since you bring this up, Tim, I can only hope that the usually wonderful Lisa - and remember I never saw this Fidelio - was being ironic. She knows her worth. But if only people - and critics - would tread a little more carefully. No doubt I've been guilty in angry moments of devastating someone. What a fragile business it is.

Fair enough this time, Sharon, and actually that assumption is perfectly reasonable - most of us have taken things on we shouldn't have done, and lived to regret it. No doubt I sound pious if I say I feel a singer's pain when judged by a single role (who hasn't heard the horrid phrase 'you're only as good as your last piece of work'?). A bit of context usually helps. I do recommend you listen to her Ilia on the Mackerras recording of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito to take away the bitter taste.

Lisa Milne has a good voice, which is ideally suited to Mozart. Yes, her Ilia is very nice and technically sound, though I have heard more exceptional voices. However, her voice will never develop beyond that point. She is 40 now. Leonie Rysanek and Jane Eaglen had glorious dramatic soprano voices at the age of 25, and could sing this sort of role with a pinch of salt at that age. Indeed, Joseph Ward, eaglen's teacher once told me, that Eaglen had a phenominally big voice at the age of 18 already. Kirsten Flagstadt emerged as a dramatic soprano at 40, and Lisa Milne has not got that brilliant or that huge a voice as Flagstadt. Sorry, but Lisa Milne does not have thesame vocal potential as the afore mentioned singers to sing this, the most glorious operatic role of all. You really do need to have a huge voice to pull this one off. Some singers like Eaglen have the vocal material needed at 18, others like Flagstadt develop it. Whichever way, by the age of 40, you need it in place already. Lisa Milne ought to stick to Mozart. I don't know who her teacher is, but he or she ought to be shot, for letting her sing this. Doesn't her teacher teach have any dramatic singers?

Interesting points, Achiles6. I guess one, misplaced reason why they cast Lisa Milne as Leonore was because of her fabulously intense acting - which doesn't sound in any case as if it was given a chance in this production. But no, she isn't and never will be a dramatic soprano. Even so, in smaller theatres like Glyndebourne I'm not sure that's entirely necessary. The best Leonore I've seen on stage was the deeply sympathetic Charlotte Margiono, much better known as a Mozartian. Apart from the look - unflatteringly dragged up, wearing a woolly hat, she looked like Phil Mitchell - it all worked admirably. But this WNO production is being seen in much bigger venues, so again, no go. Let's see what Nina Stemme makes of the role in a week's time; at least we know she's up to the challenge.

If you want good acting, get Sandra Bullock or Angelina Jolie to do this. For an operatic role such as this, good acting alone is not enough.

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