No beating about the bush: Florestan's prison is Guantanamo Bay and Don Pizarro is a corrupt U.S. general. Flawed though it is in places, Opera Holland Park's riveting Fidelio, a revival of Olivia Fuchs's 2003 production, shines a harsh light on America's shame and rails against it with savage fervour.
The director's polemical approach cuts across Beethoven's own intentions, however. Whereas the composer sought to present degradation as the doorway to redemption, Fuchs takes a cynical view even of freedom. Thus Don Fernando's goodness is tainted by his eye for a news headline while the normally sympathetic Jaquino, Marzelline's spurned suitor, revels in acts of gratuitous cruelty towards his charges.
How chilling it is to see terrified internees in orange jumpsuits feel their way into the light during the prisoners' chorus, ‘O welche Lust'. This transcendent scene is conceived and realised with impeccable stagecraft, the OHP Chorus superbly prepared here and throughout the opera by Matthew Waldren, and the impact of this moment amid Jamie Vartan's stark designs is quite overwhelming.
The company has assembled one of its finest casts for the revival. The returning Yvonne Howard is a magnificent Leonora: she invests every second of her performance with psychological honesty, even as she makes light of the cruel tessitura that marked Beethoven's own inhumanity to man.
Her incarcerated husband on this occasion is Tom Randle, whose Florestan is a deeply tortured torture victim (although his energised recovery in the final scene is a touch too sudden for comfort). Randle's performance combines vulnerability and inner strength in equal measure, and whether (near-) dead or alive his voice rings heroically.
So convincing a slob is Nicky Spence as Jaquino, slumped in a dingy office during the Overture, smoking and scratching, that the voice that emerges when he eventually sings comes as a shock. This magnetic young tenor is as dynamic an actor as he is accomplished a singer.
Sarah Redgwick as the self-duping Marzelline and Stephen Richardson as her father Rocco both contribute well delineated characters. If Phillip Joll's Don Pizzaro lacks a degree of vocal control he at least looks the part: a broad-beamed army man right down to his buckled belt.
Man of the match, though, is the conductor. Peter Robinson coaxes superb playing from the in-form City of London Sinfonia (doing such good work throughout the current season) and he shapes his reading with ideal attention to the needs of the drama. How secure these singers must feel at having such sensitive support. Time stands still during the daring pause – just this side of uncomfortable – that Robinson inserts before the rapt Act One quartet, ‘Mir ist so wunderbar'.
Fuchs's production has its lapses, for all her inventiveness and the coherence of her vision. A poor scene-shifting interlude during Act Two raises unnecessary titters (something that could easily be put right for the rest of the run) while the TV crew that follows Njabulo Madlala's preening, elegantly sung Don Fernando is distractingly cheesy.
The evening is punctuated by countless bouts of kicking and hitting, but with no fight director on hand to make them work all the pretend nastiness is a bit of an embarrassment. Better to suggest violence than to depict it as poorly as this. A shame, because in other respects this mighty Fidelio pulls no punches.