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Fidelio (Welsh National Opera - Oxford)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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In the wake of some glorious Strauss and Wagner and an appetite-whetting publicity campaign for this production itself, I had high hopes for WNO's new production of Fidelio -exciting young artists in the smaller roles, unorthodox casting of the larger ones, and a contemporary staging by an up-and-coming director promised an interesting take on this thrilling if dramatically tricky masterpiece. The production mixes futuristic minimalism (the iron monolith of the prison which dominates the stage in both acts) with echoes of the early nineteenth century: Leonore, Florestan and the prisoners wear simple, generically 'modern' clothing, whilst the prison-workers are dressed in outfits with period features (knee-breeches for Jaquino and Rocco, full skirts and corset-style top for Marzelline). Director Giuseppe Fregeni explains that this split denotes the progressive mindset of the rebels as opposed to the 'old order' of the establishment, and like many aspects of his production the idea works better on paper than on stage. From the off, there was a sense of flatness and a lack of interplay between score and staging, with fussy stage-business involving heavy-handed symbolic use of light dogging the opening scene: against the grain of the busy, skittish music, Jaquino and Marzelline remain largely static as they fiddle with candelabras which Marzelline goes on to light in her aria (presumably as a manifestation of domestic warmth and stability), where the erotic warmth of the music was eclipsed by the fiddly business with props. (These lights are later snuffed out in true melodrama-villain style by Pizarro, which was an effective if rather predictable touch - the blaze of harsh overhead lighting preceding Florestan's 'Gott! Welch dunkel hier!' in the next act made less sense). The dialogue was cut down to an absolute minimum (the entire opera clocked in at just over two hours), which would have been less problematic were it not for the almost complete absence of characterisation in terms of direction and vocal acting: Fregeni states in his programme note that he finds Fidelio more akin to a cantata rather than a bona fide opera, going on to discuss his background in dance/choreography and his conviction that opera-singers should respond physically to music rather than getting too enmeshed in details of the text. His director's notes contained many such astute observations, but whilst several of his production decisions made more sense after reading his programme-essay that did not make them any more convincing in the theatre: his points about physicality seemed to translate into a lot of laboured moving in time to the music, which just about worked in the Prisoners' Chorus (excellently sung by the WNO men) but felt horribly stagey and artificial elsewhere, and the Broadway-style arms-flung-wide moves at the opening of 'Welch ein Augenblick' and 'Abscheulicher' were simply embarrassing. (Conversely, the few moments which actively demand big physical gestures - for example Leonore's climactic 'Töt' erst sein Weib!' - looked awkward and fell flat). This sort of park-and-bark approach to opera is all but extinct these days, and just a few scenes in I found myself wishing that WNO had just cut their losses and gone with a straightforward concert staging rather than this sort of stilted half-production. The one potentially illuminating directorial decision (and in practice even this felt a little too stagey) was the business during the overture, which depicted Leonore (in female dress) waiting outside the prison for Florestan to be sentenced and then bidding him farewell as he was taken to his cell by an officer: certainly it added back-story, but it also diminished the impact of our first, dramatically delayed encounter with the prisoner at the beginning of the second act.

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.

Katherine Cooper


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