Fidelio (Welsh National Opera - Oxford)
Vocal performances, with one exception, fell in with the under-characterisation which dogged the production as a whole. Milne, perhaps best known for her interpretations of Handel and the lighter Mozart lyric roles, is not an obvious casting-choice for Leonore: I remember hearing her as an excellent Marzelline in concert under Rattle ten years ago, and on the evidence of Tuesday's performance she still sounds better-suited to that role (in the Act One ensembles it was often difficult to distinguish her from Elizabeth Donovan's Marzelline). Whilst her lyric soprano encompassed the highs and lows of this fearsomely wide-ranging role perfectly adequately (and floated some exquisite slow coloratura in 'Komm, Hoffnung'), there was little of the metallic bite and middle-register weight which the music demands, particularly in 'Abscheulicher' and the great love-duet. By far the finest singing of the evening came from the veteran Welsh tenor Dennis O'Neill, now well into his sixties and apparently singing the role of Florestan for the first time. From the searing cry of 'Gott!' at the beginning of the prison-scene he lifted things onto another plane, delivering some much-needed vocal drama to the proceedings and fielding an unfailingly bright, clarion tone which showed no signs of fatigue even in passages where singers nearly half his age can begin to flag. Philip Joll's blustery, biting Pizarro initially raised the hairs on my neck for the first time in the evening, but soon degenerated into the rather approximate barking of a retired Wotan and wasn't helped by some miscommunications with the pit, whilst Elizabeth Donovan and Robin Tritschler made little impact as the sparring would-be lovers: admittedly the shearing of dialogue and clunky blocking didn't help with characterisation, but there was scant compensation from the singers in terms of vocal acting and projection.
In the pit, things were far less tight and energised than they had been in the previous evening's Ariadne: some scrappy ensemble in the opening moments of the overture set the tone for things to come, and [Loether Koenigs[ seemed far less attuned to the needs of his singers (particularly the over-parted Milne, who was frequently swamped by the orchestra and by her tenor) than in the Strauss or in last season's unforgettable Meistersinger. And it's a small point, but his constant noisy cueing of singers is not only unnecessary (despite no-one being quite 'inside' their roles, all the cast seemed to know their way around the score perfectly well unaided) but extremely distracting - admittedly only a problem for a few rows of audience, but several people around me grumbled that they could have done without it. Perhaps patrons would have been less inclined to niggle about something so minor had it not been such a damp squib of an evening all round: the final applause was distinctly half-hearted, and I wager that most of the enthusiasm at curtain-down was generated by Beethoven's writing (there can be few more blazingly optimistic finales in the operatic canon) rather than by this lacklustre, utterly mediocre incarnation of his opera.