We are all a nest of contradictions and geniuses are not immune to the virus of applauding or defending a thing and its opposite. Beethoven, the most human of geniuses, incurred constant political incongruities, supporting French revolutionary ideals while courting and allowing himself to be entertained by the Viennese aristocracy, which embodied just the opposite values. And when his long-time admired Napoleon Bonaparte was definitively defeated, Beethoven didn’t feel any pain when he extolled the winning victorious powers, it is true that with effective, simplistic and even histrionic works. Fidelio It was released a few months before the sessions of the Vienna Congress began, but I had known two failed previous avatars, with different titles (Leonore) and with ostensible differences between the three versions, the first two (1805 and 1806) contemporary of the irresistible French territorial expansion, with Napoleon installed no less than in the palace of Schönbrunn, which was the summer residence of the Austrian emperors.
The least important of Fidelio (or Leonore) is his plot adventures. What is truly transcendent are the symbols that it hides, the icons (rather than characters) facing each other that represent an idea and its denial. Freedom and oppression, love and interest, justice and tyranny, republican virtue and despotism: opera advances on the shoulders of concepts that librettists contrasted with some simplicity, but that Beethoven enlarged and clarified with his music, turned more than ever to the service of a ideology. “L’homme is free, et partout il est dans les fers“(” Man is born free, and everywhere he is chained “): Thus begins the first book of Du contrat social (1762), by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is also really the starting point for Beethoven, who writes his only opera about an unjustly rusted prisoner in a dark dungeon imbued with the French revolutionary spirit: Fidelio it is, after all, the release of a prison, exactly the same fact that triggered the French Revolution after the capture of the Bastille.
Mount Fidelio In a scenario it is not an easy company. The opera begins as an inconsequential domestic comedy and ends almost as an oratory (from “a mass” even qualified Wilhelm Furtwängler). Both elements are equally important, because the first is most likely a transcript of Beethoven’s private life and his crush on Countess Josephine Brunsvik, inaccessible precisely because of the different social status of one and the other. Leonore and Florestan (both also aristocrats) represent what the composer could never enjoy: “the triumph of conjugal love,” as the subtitle of the libretto of the second version says. And it may not be far-fetched to see in the “terrifying silence” (“grauenvolle Stille“) on which Florestan sings in his aria an express reference to the heartbreaking deafness of the composer.
Then there is the ideological element: fidelity to principles, to political values that have nothing to do with those defended by the winning nations represented in the Congress of Vienna. Tobias Kratzer, the director of the new production that has just premiered the Royal Opera House on Sunday afternoon, has separated both areas, which he makes strictly coincide with the two acts of the opera, in an almost radical way. The first act takes place in a prison whose door flies the French flag (there is no trace of the original Sevillian atmosphere). Both the scenery and costumes are vintage and almost nothing suggests that we are facing a grower without complexes Regietheater, as he showed last summer with his Tannhäuser premiered in Bayreuth. Here he has been much more restrained and the greater intervention is reduced in the first act to some dialogues that he has decided to lighten and rewrite to a large extent, with some additions of his harvest, such as a couple of phrases that Georg Büchner puts in the mouth of Hérault in the first act of The death of Danton: “The revolution must end and the republic must begin. (…) Everyone should be able to enjoy their own way, ”Rocco tells his daughter Marzelline before singing his aria. And Don Pizarro enters the scene with the Republic alive and endorsing a moral lesson of Robespierre (also from Büchner, now of the second act): “Whoever trembles at this moment is guilty, because innocence never trembles before public vigilance . (…) Only criminals and infamous souls are afraid to see their peers fall by their side. (…) But the number of scoundrels is not large. We have to find a few heads and the homeland will be saved. ” Two at least strange addenda in an opera of monarchical setting, although during the overture Kratzer shows us the heads of several prisoners of the prison who have just been guillotined and whose names Rocco, the jailer, cross out a list. The horror?
Beyond the surface, Kratzer’s interventionist desire sows the plot of inconsistencies: Rocco talks about Florestan (whose existence and state no one should know) and plans to kill him in the presence of a crowd of people; Leonore sings her aria (in which she expressly mentions her “husband”) with Marzelline at her side, even though she must hide her transvestite status at all costs in order to carry out her firm purpose of saving Florestan; Marzelline’s uninhibited sexuality, trying to lower Florestan’s pants in his bedroom two steps from his father, marries badly with the period setting, while his insistence that he kisses him (after the trio) and his repeated accusations that he lies (after Leonore’s aria) they have very little credibility in the character. Nor is it understood that it is omitted that it is Leonore who convinces Rocco to let the prisoners out of their cells to breathe outdoors, another crucial moment that the staging leaves decidedly aside.
In the second act everything changes. The stage is, suddenly, modern, a large room with white walls, bare, with what they seem to be the funeral attendants, all dressed in black and staring, in the center of the room, at a man in chains, dirty ragged, rumpled, full of wounds. It is Florestan, of course, who sings his aria not in the gloom of his dungeon, but in front of all these people on a black rock in a kind of theater inside the theater. The sudden temporary shock has, finally, a very positive impact, as does the subsequent appearance by the door of Rocco and Leonore with the same clothes with which we said goodbye at the end of the first act ready to carry out the sinister task ordered by Don Pizarro / Robspierre. We know, however, that Leonore does not carry his gun, because both have been cached by a soldier from the prison governor, who has taken it away and handed it over to his superior. Kratzer wants to flee at all costs of being conventional and after the quartet of the second act Marzelline and, then, Leonore rescue several phrases from the funeral speech he wrote contemporary gold, Franz Grillparzer, to be read on the day of Beethoven’s funeral and direct them to the spectators of the action on stage. Florestan / Danton as the composer’s alter ego, as someone in seclusion and separated – physically or mentally – from the world?
This causes the famous “Kill his wife first!” that the potentially tyrannicidal Leonore pistol in hand, aiming at Don Pizarro, should also sing, is also unbelievable. And the last bullet that Kratzer keeps in the chamber is that it will be Marzelline who shoots the governor, wielding the gun and, as if this were not enough, also the trumpet that announced the arrival of the minister, as if she had been the one who has touched: a modern, active and republican Marianne instead of a capricious and insulting young lady. None of this is of the greatest interest, but the presence at all times of the choir serving as the people, outside of time, first silent and then singing at the end of the act, it does. We watched their faces closely, reacting to Florestan’s misery in a video filmed on stage (the chocolate tablet we see a woman eat is another one of those suppressible findings) and it is they themselves who snatch their weapons and kill the Don Pizarro soldiers in the most genuinely revolutionary behavior of staging. Too bad that in the ecstatic duo of Leonore and Florestan, Or namenlose Freude!, of unequivocal sexual resonances, the couple is even reluctant to touch each other until they finally merge into a chaste embrace. After the last chord, Jaquino is left alone on stage, dagger in hand, as the great loser of this amorous, ideological and temporary battle. Kratzer had given at least shortly before to the usually feble and episodic character of Marzelline a moment of glory not foreseen by Beethoven or his librettists. He ends, instead, in no man’s land, with the sole glory of occupying the illuminated stage alone before the curtain goes down.
In the musical, and making good the title of any of the three versions of the opera, all eyes were fixed on Fidelio / Leonore, played by the soprano Lise Davidsen. The Norwegian singer had only sung two small roles so far at the Royal Opera House (Ortlinde en Die walküre and the third norna in Götterdämmerung in the replacement of Ring Keith Warrner in the fall of 2018) until this debut in a leading role, always with Antonio Pappano as musical director, who has defined it as “a voice among a million”. Although it will mature and improve for sure, it is difficult to imagine today a Leonore more vocally suitable, with such homogeneity in all registers, with such an attractive timbre and with an inexhaustible deployment of dynamic resources. In addition, he does not have to appear to be young because, to his exultant 33 years old, he is. His demanding aria of the first act was widely applauded (he was the only one to be) and in all the ensembles in which his voice participated he stood out with much over all the others: for quality, for power, for musicality, for adaptation to his character. He did not shine excessively as an actress, but no singer showed off in this section due to the very poor direction of Tobias Kratzer’s actors, more focused on his conceptual findings and his small blows of effect. In Aix-en-Provence, Davidsen, very well directed by Katie Mitchell, He was, however, an excellent protagonist of Ariadne auf Naxos. There is no greater praise for his London performance than to affirm that from now on it will be very difficult to listen to Leonore without missing her. It is the worthy successor of Anna Milder (who premiered the role), Maria Malibran or, above all, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, which made a real recreation of the character. Or, modernly, from fellow countryman Kirsten Flagstad, Martha Mödl or Christa Ludwig. If nothing goes wrong, Lise Davidsen will mark an era in all the great dramatic soprano roles.
Before starting the opera, after all the audience was reflected as he entered the room in the video projected on the entire curtain, thus converted into a mirror, and on which they could be read in large characters white the three great revolutionary nouns (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité), Oliver Mears announced that Jonas Kaufmann was somewhat unwell (he was “under the weather“, he said graphically), despite which he had decided to sing at the premiere, so he begged the audience to be understanding. Professionalism aside, Kaufmann has a close relationship with Antonio Pappano, whom he presented with his first Otello scenic in this same theater in 2017. Absent until after the intermission and present, therefore, for only one third of the performance, the German tenor sang his great aria solo as he could, taking advantage of his enormous trade and unable to avoid constant tightness in the acute notes and a I phrase something washed out. In her subsequent interventions with Davidsen, she literally dwarfed him, and not only because of his almost ninety meter height. The applause given at the end to one and another was a fair reflection of what we had heard.
Georg Zeppenfeld was a solvent Rocco, but not much else, while Amanda Forsythe was a willing Marzelline (too light for the weight Kratzer wants to confer on him) and Robin Tritschler a suffering Jaquino, the three also well below Davidsen, his companions in the quartet of the first act, which was not exempt from tuning problems. Simon Neal barely shone like Don Pizarro, especially for lack of sufficient vocal packing and for the problems to project the notes well in the acute area. The choir, on the other hand, scratched at a higher level than usual, especially in the end, that Kratzer makes them sing almost disdainfully at the very edge of the proscenium and staring at the audience with the illuminated hall. There was a connection between this gesture and the video in progress prior to the performance (there was no lack of spectators who wanted to immortalize themselves reflected on the scene with their mobiles), but, like almost everything Kratzer offered us, it had more of an isolated occurrence than of the necessary corollary of an iron and sequentially intertwined whole.
The biggest disappointment of the afternoon was, perhaps, that of Antonio Pappano, who confirmed that Beethoven is a very hard nut to crack, even for an extraordinary musician and of proven solvency like him. Until the aforementioned quartet of the first act in the form of a canon (one of the jewels, if not the great musical jewel of the opera) was not fully recognizable, since until then, neither by sound, nor by balance between pit and scene, nor by style, we were listening to a first-order Beethoven. The march prior to the entry of Don Pizarro (on horseback) was again in light excess, when he should mark the decisive turning point and the end of the initial bufo tone, and in none of the two great arias of Leonore and Florestan the provision Orchestral lived up to what Pappano has accustomed us to. Better, more by push than by the intrinsic quality of the insrumental part, the endings of both acts, bashed with a good pulse and in which the innate dramatic vein of the British seems to feel much more comfortable than in writing usually very little operatic Beethoven in other numbers.
In sum, a Fidelio in which the extraordinary intervention of Lise Davidsen concealed, but did not hide, some musical deficiencies and a pretentious staging, lack of solid ideas, little congruent and lacerantly devoid of emotion. With much more modest willows and singers, the recent production of the Bonn Opera, with a scenic proposal by Volker Lösch overtly political and conceived as a denunciation of the current Turkish regime, dived much better in the rich polysemy of this elusive opera and, why fool ourselves, so little operatic. Tickets for all functions of the Royal Opera House were sold in just 24 hours, which gives an idea of the excitement that this new production of London has aroused Fidelio in full ephemeris of Beethoven’s 250th Birthday. Whoever wants to judge for himself, and assent or disagree with what has been told here, will be able to do it on March 17, since the representation of that day, the last of the series, will be transmitted live to cinemas around the world, including Many in Spain.