wed 22/05/2024

Fidelio, Longborough Festival review - death to the concept of concepts | reviews, news & interviews

Fidelio, Longborough Festival review - death to the concept of concepts

Fidelio, Longborough Festival review - death to the concept of concepts

Beethoven's only opera musically solid but imprisoned in a director's bad idea

The Prisoners' Chorus, upstaged by laboratory clutterMatthew Williams-Ellis

Opera directors must, I suppose, direct. But one could wish that they kept their mouths shut, at least outside the rehearsal studio. The condescension in Longborough’s programme-book interview with the director (Orpha Phelan) and designer (Madeleine Boyd) of the festival’s new Fidelio beggars belief.

And when the curtain goes up, or to be exact, when you enter the theatre and are confronted with the usual “back story” of a production line of white clad, masked hospital technicians packing drugs, filling syringes, and then – unbelievably – playing eurhythmics in time with Beethoven’s Overture, you may well find yourself wishing a speedy death (by injection?) to the whole concept of concepts.

The Phelan-Boyd idea, for what it’s worth, seems to be that the inmates of Don Pizarro’s gaol are kept there, not by bars, but by drugs. The fact that this makes nonsense of the wonderful Prisoners’ Chorus, which is all about freedom and release, is simply bad luck, and hardly matters anyway, since this great moment is presented upstage behind a laboratory clutter of tables, bottles etc and almost wholly misses its effect, despite excellent singing by the chorus and by the (uncredited) solo tenor.

“Prisons are never dark,” Boyd also informs us, having presumably overlooked Florestan’s first line, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!”, which luckily Orpha Phelan has noticed and sets in a suitably opaque gloom, visually the best part of the production (lighting by Wayne Dowdeswell). But the inevitable updating (to make sure we, the poor blockheaded audience, pick up the relevance of political prisoners to our own enlightened times) runs to having Pizarro in a wheel chair, the victim of a credit-sequence shooting by someone or other, perhaps Florestan (whose imprisonment might then seem justified), and Florestan painstakingly revived by eurhythmic CPR through much of the final scene.

A problem not of concepts but of sheer musicality

The real problem with all this nonsense is that, when it comes to actually directing the opera as a musical drama, Phelan flounders. Fidelio is a work of sublime moments, as she reminds us, but it is not without its dramaturgical problems. These are not much helped by singing the opera in German but speaking the (rewritten) dialogue in English.

But above all they are not helped by the failure to enact the personal drama that is embodied in moments like the grave-digging scene, where Leonora has to be seen to help Rocco dig while simultaneously agonizing over the apparently lifeless corpse that might be her husband. Phelan’s direction here is limp and unfocused; and the stage business in the final scene – the CPR, followed by the still semi-conscious Florestan having his trousers ostentatiously changed by prison warders – suggests yet again the directorial fear that music, even Beethoven’s, can’t be trusted to hold the audience’s attention on its own. This is where directing opera actually gets difficult: a problem not of concepts but of sheer musicality.

So what of the music? It’s a solid rather than memorable affair under the Franco-Israeli Gad Kadosh, on the quick side and not always quite secure in ensemble. Elizabeth Atherton (pictured right with John Paul Huckle) sings stylishly as Leonora and handles the male “disguise” (actually green unisex overalls) as well as most, but she is not quite a Leonora vocally, lacking the ideal weight of voice, and perhaps reflecting Boyd’s penetratingly up-to-the-minute observation about “these modern times, when people don’t have to identify themselves so much as male/female”. Adrian Dwyer, by contrast, has the right Florestan sound, and is mostly very good in the aria, if inclined to thin out his tone at the top. But Simon Thorpe is a disappointing Pizarro, scarcely dark enough in timbre, perhaps more baritone than bass. Maybe he’d be happier standing up.

The most apt performance vocally is John Paul Huckle’s Rocco, sturdy in phrasing and colour, and a good image of the well-meaning but morally fragile common man. His American accent is slightly disconcerting in the dialogue, not least because of the modish (uncredited) translation. But his relative youth works well. His job calls for strength, not wit or wisdom. Lucy Hall is a lively, secretarial Marzelline, until she literally lets her hair down and removes her specs at the thought of marrying Fidelio. Sam Furness is a suitably direct Jacquino, a bit of a vocal bully, an old-fashioned male. On the other hand Timothy Dawkins’s well-sung Minister – here for some reason promoted, or demoted, to Colonel – is a very modern male, a soldier in government. But wait! What about Napoleon?

The Phelan-Boyd idea seems to be that the inmates of Don Pizarro’s gaol are kept there not by bars, but by drugs


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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"...and perhaps reflecting Boyd’s penetratingly up-to-the-minute observation about “these modern times, when people don’t have to identify themselves so much as male/female” Care to explain this? Having seen the show on Saturday, hard not to read this little dig as transphobia on the reviewer's part.

I don't read this as transphobia by SW. Beethoven was clearly writing about a male-female relationship, which is not to say that his subject of 'conjugal love' shouldn't include same-sex unions. However, it would be hard to cast this piece with either two men or two women in the principal roles without changing both the text and the music - though quite possible. Perhaps Boyd is suggesting that the nature of 'travesty' roles in opera is now in question? Cherubino and Octavian should be sung by men...? Hmmm....

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