Prom 35: 16th August 2001 – Fidelio

Photograph of Steven Page


Beethoven
Fidelio – opera in two acts
(sung in German; semi-staged for the Proms by Deborah Warner)

Jacquino – Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Marzelline – Lisa Milne (soprano)
Rocco – Reinhard Hagen (bass)
Leonore – Charlotte Margiono (soprano)
Don Pizarro – Steven Page (baritone)
First Prisoner – James Elliott (tenor)
Second Prisoner – Rodney Clarke (bass)
Florestan – Kim Begley (tenor)
Don Fernando – Alan Opie (baritone)

The Glyndebourne Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London


As Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio has always enjoyed the caché of articulating his convictions – of liberty, equality and verity – in the most direct and immediate terms. Of course, those convictions have been subject to revision, often distortion, in the near-on two centuries since the work was first unveiled as Leonora. However clear Beethoven thought its ’message’, this hasn’t stopped musicians, directors and ’cultural politicians’ from endowing it with qualities which, however abstractly or inclusively conceived, tend to confirm a narrowly defined context of time and place.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Deborah Warner’s Glyndebourne’s staging, as reduced for this Prom performance, was its lack of any conviction regarding the opera’s broader polemic. The generalised casual dress and dreary functional decor brought to mind British realist drama as practised in the fringe-theatre of the early 1970s, with perhaps a nod to the youth culture of the period.

So we had a Jacquino and Marzelline who were dead-ringers for ’Rainbow’ or ’Magpie’ presenters, a Rocco who might have walked in from a ’Crossroads’ set, and a Leonore whose appearance and body-language suggested she would much rather ’go fish’ than rescue her long-missing husband … add to this a group of prisoners who could have dropped by from the local youth-club and the result was less a Fidelio for the modern age than one whose lack of ambition, and avoidance of the opera’s still-relevant cultural provocation, made for distinctly uninvolving theatre.

Vocally, things were variable. The undoubted success was Kim Begley’s Florestan – his wan tone and crazed fervency opened Act Two in gripping fashion, before gaining new reserves of strength in the duet with Leonore. Charlotte Margiono seemed galvanised by their meeting in the dungeon, rising to the heroism and vulnerability of her character more consistently than in Act One, where her ’Abscheulischer’ scena and aria was marred by unsteadiness and a reticence to establish her persona as the opera’s driving-force.

Victim of a throat infection, Reinhard Hagen still coped ably as Rocco, conveying a character development from genial time-server to aware citizen that is the most significant of any in the opera. Steven Page was an imperious rather than villainous Pizarro, impressive in his Act One aria and in the masterly duet with Rocco that proceeds it (his stifled emphasis on ’Ein Stoss’ an effective touch), though the pantomime of his exposing, and ’Keystone Cops’ chase in the final scene, were symptomatic of stage-drama intervention, as in the spoken dialogue, that did nothing for dramatic coherence or to develop character.

Lisa Milne was a sympathetic if graceless Marzelline, Timothy Robinson was personable if a little hectoring as the put-upon Jacquino, and Alan Opie proved dependable as Don Fernando – more ’first division’ civil servant than government minister, but a figure of authority nonetheless.

Something of the lack of focus in this performance must be down to Simon Rattle. After a trenchant if occasionally too emphatic overture (why break up the opening phrase by over-pointing its final two notes?), the initial domestic comedy of Act One was decently realised, though the tendency to speed up towards the end of individual numbers often failed to promote dramatic intensity; the sense of foreboding which pervades the complex final ensemble was undermined by poor co-ordination between singers and orchestra. Act Two was more consistent, with the dungeon scene building impressively to its denouement, and the extended finale finding a viable balance between public celebration and personal reconciliation.

The OAE did not have one of its best nights, though the strings, not least antiphonally divided violins, worked hard to motivate the emotional surges with which Beethoven heightens dramatic pacing. The woodwind were intonationally secure in their numerous solos – the oboe rising to the occasion in all senses in the counterpoint to Florestan’s aria – and the horns made up for lacklustre work in Act One with some bravura playing.

Those who recall Rattle’s handling of certain Beethoven symphonies in the 1980s may well have sensed a similar tentativeness here; feeling his way toward a viable groundplan, with periods suggesting that ends will one day justify means. The uninspired staging notwithstanding, this was an often-engaging account of an opera whose image too often obscures its essence. Interpretatively and conceptually, however, there’s still a fair way to go.

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