Fidelio begins as a harmless Singspiel, almost cosy despite its prison setting, decidedly plebeian in its use of spoken dialogue no less than in its humble characters. Jaquino, a jailer, is frustrated that since the arrival of a glamorous new jailer, Fidelio, his pursuit of Marzelline, daughter of Rocco the head warder, has foundered. Rocco favours Fidelio just as much as his daughter does, but Fidelio’s secret is that he is, in fact, female – promising material for a Shakespearean comedy! However, what we get is something quite different, for Fidelio/Leonore’s mission is to save her husband, Florestan, a political prisoner, and from crossed paths in love we move to the horrors of the prison depths, tyranny resisted, the assertion of the power of freedom and love and a final celebration of the human spirit.
So Beethoven’s only opera requires precise control of tone, a subtle manipulation of audience emotions, which makes the triumph of Opera North’s production all the more remarkable given some early hiccups on the first night. Shortly after the glorious quartet that first hints at greater depth, sung and accompanied with exquisite delicacy, the orchestra lights failed – twice! A 15-minute break, a reprise of a few lines of dialogue, and Rocco’s song about the power of money, as near as Beethoven comes to buffo, restored momentum.
Tim Albery’s production was first seen for Scottish Opera in 1994 and he is again at the helm in this Opera North revival, astonishingly with the same conductor Sir Richard Armstrong. The whole thing exudes confidence. The production gains much from Stewart Laing’s designs and Peter Mumford’s lighting plot. Imaginatively lit on-stage compartments give us the doll’s house of the family Rocco’s apartments, Fidelio and Rocco suddenly revealed on a ladder to the depths of the prison, a triptych of Florestan, Rocco and Leonore joined and separate in their journeys of discovery, and much more.
Individually the performers are excellent, sometimes outstanding, but the sense of teamwork is even more impressive, the matching of voices producing beautifully balanced ensembles. As Leonore Emma Bell is magnificent, singing with equal power, intensity and beauty and carrying understated conviction in a trousers role, and American tenor Steven Harrison finds similarly heroic and agonised tones to make their reunion deeply moving. Jeremy White’s warm and troubled Rocco is a highly sympathetic creation, his soft-grained bass a perfect contrast to the hard-edged tone of Andrew Foster Williams, a Don Pizarro of stiff-backed arrogance. Jaquino and Marzelline tend to disappear from view as the opera progresses, but both Joshua Ellicot and, especially, Fflur Wyn set the early tone perfectly, he vocally assured and emotionally gauche, she charmingly natural and invoking enough sympathy to draw audience eyes to gauge her reaction to Leonore’s revelation. Add in Robert Winslade Anderson’s sonorous and dignified Don Fernando and a typically committed chorus and there’s not much more to wish for. The orchestra, sometimes not perfectly precise, comes through in the second act to exhilarating effect.