Beethoven’s only opera is a totemic symbol of liberty. It stands resolutely against physical imprisonment, and barks loudly for political, intellectual and artistic freedom - even for those who might not be worthy of it. The plot is akin to an Alexandre Dumas’ novel; double-crossings, subterfuge and plain shenanigans leading to the mother of all jailbreaks masterminded by an ingenious woman prepared to risk her life for justice.
This production, originally by Jurgen Flimm - here revived by Daniel Dooner, jollies along very sleepily with the disguised Leonore (played by Nina Stemme) making doe-eyes at Rocco’s daughter until Don Pizarro sweeps in (played with dynamism by John Wegner) and tilts the drama to a more sinister angle. There was unusual gravity in the spoken sections, particularly from Kurt Rydl as Rocco, and deft touches such as the beautifully sung chorus of prisoners, but the opera doesn’t really break out of the moulds set by Beethoven’s predecessors until the appearance of Florestan in the second act.
Beethoven takes this opportunity to show us what artistic freedom can mean; freedom from clean, pretty, superficial music (particularly in the vocal writing), expressing something raw and bitter about Florestan’s inner turmoil, and sounding like nothing that had been written or conceived of before.
A desire for contrast in both costumes and setting was evident, perhaps too much so, as prisoners’ outfits were too brightly white (even for symbolic value), the sunshine backdrop of the final triumph was twee, and the overall look of the production was inconsistent.
There was a flummoxing decision made in this production, something which the heart of the piece needed to be absolutely clear: why did the heavily armed Leonora let the ‘evil’ Don Pizarro escape the prison, thereby incarcerating herself and keeping her husband in his grim dungeon? Obviously they can’t sing a love duet if they’ve left the stage entirely, but this didn’t add up, and detracted from the logic of the narrative. There were one or two naff moments of ‘over-direction’ - a bunch of red roses being dropped one-by-one in both acts, as well as the chorus and extras covering their eyes in pointlessly stylised synchronicity, but when the opera was able to tell its own tale this was a powerful experience.
Nina Stemme as Leonore had a voice like an arrow and her performance was plucky and driven, always pertinent to the story. A fiery John Wegner brought life to Don Pizarro, and there was a fine, but not astonishing performance from Endrik Wottrich as Floristan. Other than that, performances were consistent and solid with a particularly notable contribution coming from Elizabeth Watts who made an auspicious house debut as Marzelline.
The orchestra were tight, pungent and warm, quite a feat, considering that Sir Mark Elder was replacing Kirill Petrenko at such short notice. Beethoven’s message may be all-too-encompassing, since he frees not only the innocent and righteous Florestan, but also every other guilty and deplorable criminal in his jail. This certainly filled in for the operatic over-the-top nonsense that was lacking in Beethoven’s profound, prophetic and still resonant opera.