Opening night at the ENO proved to be a much more exciting affair than the run of the mill Turandot that the ROH proffered. The ENO has taken on two of Calixto Bieito's less shocking stagings over the last two seasons, though they are still unexpected and radical enough to raise a few eyebrows and boos, always a good thing when you see who it is who's booing. This is a thought provoking production, and my criticisms are extensive only because I sense that it has the seed of something very powerful.
For Bieito, all of the characters in Fidelio are in a prison of sorts, be it mental or otherwise. The astonishing set (designed by Rebecca Ringst) is a 3D maze constructed out of perspex and strip lighting, which the characters wander through looking for an escape. The opening sequence, set to the Leonore III overture (which works superbly), is a breathtaking spectacle. The actors crawl out of the pit into the desolate, flickering beauty of the labyrinth. Tim Mitchell's lighting designs are exceptional here and throughout. The meaning is ambiguous, but perhaps Bieito is showing the characters choosing to enter the prison and is by extension saying that we choose and define our own restraints. Once all the characters are in, it's surprising however how literal the prison remains.
There's a weird episode in the first scene where Jaquino forces himself on Marzelline as if to rape her in his frustration - a horrible and shocking display of what his own prison of sexual obsession has done to him. She pushes him off, but the whole event doesn't convince - two seconds later she looks totally happy as if nothing has happened, and is singing joyously of Fidelio. Most of Act I passes slowly and even verges occasionally on being boring as the plot becomes abstracted by the lack of dramatic logic. Act II flows better and raises more interesting questions. After the interval, the set pivots down into a horizontal position, making the prison seem more real and physical now than mental. When Florestan is rescued by Leonore a really surprising thing happens - a caged string quartet descends from the sky, playing the unearthly slow movement Heiliger Dankgesang of Beethoven's op.132, while Florestan and Leonore sit quietly with each other. It's a profoundly touching moment, and we realise that even though Florestan has been rescued by his love, he is either not ready or too damaged to be helped by her; Bieito seems to be saying we cannot truly be "saved" by others. Before this though there's a major dramatic misfire - the ecstatic duet that precedes this scene sees the newly united couple first dressing into a suit and elegant dress, while singing about the joy of the other's embrace. Bieito deliberately ignores the words, showing us that these two seem far more interested in propriety and getting back to their old gender roles than they are in each other. Again it's the music that's the sticking point here though - Bieito is clearly trying to make this scene laughable, but it isn't emotionally or dramatically convincing because nothing has prepared us dramatically for these actions, and Beethoven's music (let alone the text) makes this dramatic choice feel phony and utterly implausible. Ironically avoiding Beethoven's total lack of irony is one thing, but comedy and irony requires just as much truth as serious drama and the characters still need to have some sort of logic to them if we're meant to believe in their onstage reality.
The ending is extremely ambiguous. With Don Pizarro's plot foiled, Don Fernando enters from one of the ENO's boxes as a bewigged, wealthy 18th century gentleman/prince, totally at odds with the rest of the production's period or aesthetic - a representative of a past era which was exactly what Beethoven was saying in this piece that we needed to get away from. What I took it to mean was that with all the talk of equality, hope and freedom, this nobleman playboy is still required to actually grant everyone freedom, and he sees his role in the rousing final chorus as a fun amusement for himself. Don Fernando is not subject to the rules that everyone else is (OK, possibly a clear message in line with what I've just said) - he shoots Florestan dead, but then Leonore mysteriously revives him, and the episode isn't further commented on. I have no idea why or how this happens.
As so often with Bieto, the "Konzept" seems interesting and pregnant with possibilities and is rendered with a compelling visual strength, but these things are far stronger than the moment to moment action. In Bieito's narrative, it's clear that the characters are meant to be alienated from each other, but this usually manifests itself in vague standing around, ironically not so far from the park and bark aesthetic of a bygone era. Interaction between characters, especially during the big conflicts always seems both clumsy and overly rehearsed ("now you fall down here"), intentions rarely specific or easy to read.
But even if this is deliberate, and the characters are meant to seem physically unconvincing, and even if they're not talking to each other, or are talking past each other, for me at least, characters still need to be acting within the confines of whatever psychological situation they find themselves in for us to believe in them. I need to feel that they are experiencing something, even if it's only a mental phenomenon.* Alternatively, if planning a very unusual production like this, where the actors (deliberately) feel dislocated from what they expect in a role, they need to be provided with a new language of acting in order to be expressive and interesting as characters. Here every character seemed very generic and unspecific to me. I don't mind when directors have a political point that they want to make about an opera using a radical "konzept" - it adds to the variety of the stultifying canon and may possibly make us see a work afresh, which is always a rare gift. But for me at least, it has to work as drama on a moment by moment basis too. Opera is not primarily an intellectual art form: this aspect has to work alongside the emotions and senses. These things are the remit of the music - it cannot be ignored.
If the ENO want to continue doing modern productions like this, and I strongly think they should, in my opinion they really have to look at their translation policy, since they also seem committed long term to opera in English as an idea. Me and my companion (coincidentally also a translator) found that David Pountney's translation felt consistently totally at odds with either the piece or the style of the production. The beautiful passages by Borges for the spoken parts made the contrast all the keener. Is rhyme really the most important aspect of this libretto? So often in this translation it takes precedent over good grammar, beautiful language, and appropriateness to the setting. I mean some people might value rhyme above poetic sense, but for me it seems that translation is one of the very few a chances we get in opera to change the "sacred" text! Surely the opportunity should be used to bind text, drama and music together better. This same thing was one of my only criticisms of last season's brilliant ENO Wozzeck.
Musically, the cast is very good. Emma Bell makes a vocally thrilling Leonore, her fierce commitment to expression and communication totally overshadowing the slightly approximate moments of coloratura. The range of colours she gets out of her voice is admirable - it's not that it's the widest palette ever, but rather that they are always precise and apt. Stuart Skelton is similarly very impressive as Florestan - a truly heroic voice that is capable and unafraid of singing with detail and finesse. His crescendo opening word "God" was simply astonishing - exactly what was wanted. Sarah Tynan's Marzelline was the most vocally impressive of the rest of the cast, possessing a voice with a youthful Mozartian timbre and flexibility. Philip Horst's Pizarro was sometimes straining to be heard, but he convinced dramatically at least. James Creswell's Rocco offered the reverse - a sonorous voice, but the most at sea dramatically. The ENO chorus is on excellent form.
Edward Gardner does fascinating things in the pit. There was a precision and elemental power in the overture that was transfixing. Elemental not in the normal sense of "man and nature" that we expect of Beethoven - elemental in the sense of it seeming to correspond with very precise and fundamental mental/psychic states. The late quartets and piano sonatas contain this same quality, which seems to entirely transcend style and period. This almost worrying yet cool intensity extended to almost all of the purely orchestral passages of the opera and worked wonderfully with the staging. The vocal music is treated rather differently. Gardner makes it sound like Beethoven was picking up where Mozart left off with Die Zauberflote - dancing, joyous, almost graceful, that most un-Beethovinian quality! The contrast is large, but it seems to me not entirely unwarranted - Gardner brings to the fore the experimental nature of Beethoven's score, and also the wealth of influences it contains. Although this lightish approach to the vocal music can jar aesthetically with the darkness of the staging, Bieito's production is clearly trying to get us to question our assumptions about the piece, so paradoxically Gardner is not at odds with the spirit of the staging. He cements his place as one of this country's most talented opera conductors.
Bieito's Fidelio is not great as drama, but it is as an intellectual exploration of Beethoven's opera. Certainly worth seeing for this reason, and musically also.
*Maybe not everyone thinks this?