Fidelio by L.v.Beethoven, Royal Opera House 2019-2020
Marzelline, or the love of humanity
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Singspiel in two acts
Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner based on revisions by Georg Friedrich Treitschke of the play "Léonore, ou L'Amour conjugal" by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly.
Texts and dialogues revised by Tobias Kratzer on texts by Georg Büchner and Franz Grillparzer
Conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano
Director: Tobias Kratzer
Set and costume designer: Rainer Sellmaier
Lighting designer: Michael Bauer
Video designer: Manuel Braun
Dramaturg: Bettina Bartz
Leonore: Lise Davidsen
Florestan: Jonas Kaufmann
Rocco: Georg Zeppenfeld
Don Pizarro: Simon Neal
Marzelline: Amanda Forsythe
Jaquino: Robin Tritschler
Don Fernando: Egils Silinš
First prisoner: Filipe Manu
Second prisoner: Timothy Dawkins
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
In this Beethoven year, many Fidelios are in bloom. This is part of the game of musical celebrations, and the humanistic message of the work is all the more justified in these not very illuminist times. But if the message of the work is not in doubt, its dramaturgical construction does, to the extent that few productions in the world's opera houses appear convincing. Between a first part in the form of a rather amiable Singspiel with a hybrid character, on the rebound and small scenes of life in prison à la Stendhal, there is a second part more "militant" with a resolution in the form of "Deus ex machina". Finding a homogeneous track is difficult.Tobias Kratzer directly confronts this dramaturgical deadlock in a staging that poses the problem, and proposes a resolution, surprising and intelligent, without ever touching the spirit of the work. With a great cast and musical setting all the ingredients are there for a beautiful evening.
We have already addressed in our various reviews of the work the question of Fidelio, whose message of freedom and humanity is nowadays an illuminist message, and who is also one of the many avatars of the lifesaving pieces (“pièces à sauvetage”) that proliferated at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Die Zauberflöte are examples of this in Mozart, and the author of these lines likes to recall Cherubini's magnificent Lodoïska, the biggest success of the French Revolution (more than 200 performances) which inspired copies by Storace (1794) and Mayr (1796) under the same title Lodoïska (whose hero's name, Floreski, is very close by the consonance of Florestan)… Last but not least, Rossini wrote in 1815 Torvaldo and Dorliska, directly inspired by the same story.
Beethoven was familiar with Cherubini's Lodoïska, whose immense success had gone far beyond the borders (later, for Brahms, it became a fetish score). Bouilly's original work ("Leonore ou l'amour conjugal" set to music in 1798 by Pierre Gaveaux) will serve as the basis for the libretto of Fidelio. And it immediately appears that the Beethovenian sources are French sources of the revolutionary period, which the director Tobias Kratzer will use directly…
Several problems in Fidelio's libretto, which have already been mentioned : the profound difference between the almost “Marivaudian” (or almost “Stendhalian”) theatre which exalts the light love games or love in prison of the first part, and the heroic and then ideological scope of the second part, which was noted by productions as different as that of Harry Kupfer at the Berlin Staatsoper, which was given a cool welcome at its creation, but which represents an effort to get out "from above" of the difficulty by relying on the musical scope of the work. Longer ago we also remember the magnificent "liberatory" approach of Herbert Wernicke in Salzburg (with Solti, Ben Heppner, Cheryl Studer in 1996) which ended in Missa Solemnis having begun as an operetta, as the French newpaper Libération wrote of a revival in 1998.
Let's remember this production of Wernicke, because Kratzer is not so far from it.
Let us also remember the bitter failures in the history of Fidelio stagings, first and foremost Giorgio Strehler at the Châtelet, and those many pointless productions that abound in opera theatres, full of those prison gates that rise at the end to mark the liberation.
The second pitfall is also a singular way of dealing with the characters and their psychology, in a rescue opera with a "single objective": Leonore must free Florestan, and to do so, she must pull out all the stops. And to achieve this goal she must persuade the others, first of all Rocco whom she must circumvent, seduce and convince, and for that she must disguise herself as an all-purpose boy. As obviously Leonore/Fidelio is noble and seductive, a real καλὸς κἀγαθός, handsome and good, or handsome and therefore good according to the good law of being and appearance, he/she disturbs the young Marzelline, an intuitive and fine girl who is undoubtedly tired of her somewhat dull Jaquino, until she falls in love with Fidelio, an impossible love that is resolved in the first act by a promise of marriage sealed by Rocco.
But, Florestan freed, Fidelio becomes Leonore again, Florestan's wife ; Marzelline at the end remains alone, deceived and abandoned, in a solitude all the stronger as everyone else rejoices in the final chorus and there is no question of finding Jaquino again either. The love for Fidelio obviously has the effect of revealing the absence of a real bond with Jaquino.
Likewise is Rocco a venal and cowardly being who seeks to make a little money or a good guy forced by fear to manage the state prisoner ?
Last mystery, the final chorus, as if out of nowhere. Mahler (and others before him already) had musically solved this difficulty by introducing the Leonore III overture, which clearly separated the rescue piece from the final hymn and made it an overture to the final scene of a different nature.
Today we return to the original work without Leonore III (or Leonore III replaces the overture of the whole work) and thus the dramaturgical question rests in its acuity and implausibility.
The population that witnesses the liberation of Florestan and the resolution are the people, everywhere present and coming from nowhere, whereas the chorus of the first part (prisoners' chorus) was clearly motivated. In the second part there is a dramaturgical loosening : we move from the epic style (the liberation) to the Missa Solemnis (or to the Ninth Symphony), we move from the plot rooted in a story to the pure abstraction of the expression of popular joy and the almost metaphysical liberation.
A realistic first act, in the style of the historical opera of "historical and historicized facts".
These three questions : the structure in two very different parts, the psychology of the characters, and the question of the final part, Kratzer decided to confront them and propose solutions or answers. By adapting the original text, he gives an internal and external logic to the work.
It is this effort to build a logic to what does not really have one that strikes us, and which will give a very great coherence to the whole : he will indeed propose an answer to a work that clearly draws its sources from successful works of the French Revolution. Both Lodoiska, which takes place in distant Poland, and “Leonore ou l’amour conjugal”, which takes place in Spain, avoid representing France as the place of the prison where Florestan is locked up. Revolutionary France cannot be a France of arbitrariness and injustice…
But Tobias Kratzer puts the plot back into France, under the motto (in the first part) “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” in a suffocating prison yard that seems to contradict him, where a gigantic tricolor flag is flying. In a revolutionary France where terror reigns and where there are political prisoners. This first part is very historical, very realistic, hyper realistic even as in the tradition of the Opéra-Comique, and it is based on the text of Bouilly (who founded the libretto of Joseph Sonnleithner), called by Bouilly himself not a “play” but a "historical fact". This "historical fact", which became an opéra-comique with music by Pierre Gaveaux performed at the Théâtre Feydeau (where Lodoïska was premiered in 1791) in 1798, is indeed based on the story of a woman who in Tours risked her life to free her aristocratic husband who was unjustly locked up in revolutionary jails. Bouilly was then indeed a revolutionary civil servant in Touraine.
Kratzer will thus clearly impose as a setting a French prison, a very realistic setting (right up to Marzelline's bed inspired by one that was in the Conciergerie((The terrible prison in Paris where Queen Marie-Antoinette spent her last days…))) exterior and interior by Rainer Sellmaier, with a stage edge emphasised by a luminous frame, to mark the separation of the “fourth wall”, as in his production of Guillaume Tell in Lyon. A setting with the inevitable grid, the small window at the top that lights up and is that of the spy who is watching, always present, and an unfortunate tree that is a trace of life in this petrified universe. A setting and certain movements that clearly recall Otto Schenk's historical staging in Vienna.
I mentioned Stendhal above because the image of life in prison is one of the important themes of the Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma), where Fabrice, a prisoner, falls in love with Clelia, the daughter of his jailer, and experiences "happiness in prison". There is obviously some of that in these genre scenes constructed by Tobias Kratzer, who in fact, far from making an imitation play, creates essential deviations from the linear Singspiel à la Schenk.
His desire for realism makes him extend the number of characters to the other prison guards, Jaquino's companions. Indeed, most of the time the characters in this first part are limited to the five main characters and the prisoners who appear. Here, there is a life of the group (around Jaquino) that takes a dim view of the intrusion of this unknown Fidelio, whose appointment by Rocco can be seen during the overture. Kratzer in fact wants to "circumstantiate" each moment, to take care of the effects of causality : Jaquino has been supplanted in Marzelline's heart by Fidelio, but undoubtedly also by his efficiency in Rocco's heart which has reduced Jaquino to not being of any use anymore… Hence undoubtedly jealousies, group effects, and hence the hatred of Jaquino which will not leave him until the final curtain. All this is not in Bouilly's libretto, but helps to contextualize a libretto and dialogues that were originally a little elementary and only utilitarian, which do not correspond to the final profile of the work and creates the difficulty of homogenizing the two very different parts.
As for Marzelline, who only exists in the libretto to add a little “salt “(bitterness in love, seduction game, household scenes), as if she had a decorative role. Kratzer, on the contrary, makes her exist (let's not forget that the music gives her the first aria of the opera) and gives her relationship with Fidelio a more realistic aspect that respects the spirit of the libretto by giving her flesh : Marzelline, less innocent than in most productions, drags Fidelio into her room, tries to undress him and goes far enough to destabilize Fidelio/Leonore, whose reaction could pass for a fear of deflowering.
It's very well done, it's very right psychologically and can be read on the double level of the spectator (who knows why Fidelio is running away) and Marzelline (who can imagine another motive). That's what I call Kratzer's finesse, who insists on showing a libretto logic, on rehabilitating the characters with a slightly frustrated psychology in the original libretto. He arranges the dialogues by adding lines, transforming the texts by giving consistency to the characters and justifying their behaviour. This is not a betrayal, everything is possible in the Singspiel and other directors, including in London (Adolf Dresen), have already intervened with the dialogues. He advances the development of their characters.
Thus also that of Jaquino, whose jealousy is motivated by Marzelline's attitude, by that of Rocco and also by his colleagues who mock him.
So also that of of Rocco, much more elegant and less clumsy than in other productions, dressed in late eighteenth-century trousers and stockings, grey wig very tidy, he is a character who exudes a certain refinement and above all a certain culture (there is a library in his office), so he appears more like a bourgeois than a worker. Everything is motivated here and his preference for Fidelio seems to correspond better to what he wants for his daughter. He is therefore thoughtful, and politically prepared : we can see this when Pizarro arrives. He knows the political stakes that justify Florestan's imprisonment. Moreover, setting up the plot in the revolutionary period, that is to say in its original effective frame of reference (Bouilly), he uses the text of Büchner's The Death of Danton, which put into literature the opposition between Danton and Robespierre, to show in Pizarro not the totalitarian who locks up Florestan for obscure reasons of personal vengeance, but for ideological reasons, all the dialogue with Rocco shows this. It is a political imprisonment, in a period of terror.
As Kratzer himself points out, there is something in the Pizarro/Florestan opposition that has something of the Robespierre/Danton opposition. The revolution(s) have their problems, and the French Revolution, despite its ideals, has its dark side. This first part, the "historical fact", underlines something real, and not at all just any utopia, as is the case with the prisoner’s chorus, freed on the initiative of Fidelio/Leonore, which shows the underside, the gutters of the revolution. Everything in this livid nadir is the opposite of utopia.
And Fidelio/Leonore ? The character is also treated with a certain realism, the director is helped in this by the imposing size of Lise Davidsen, which gives her this stature, and gives the character a profile that is not that of a simple opera transvestite. We see her rummaging through belongings, stealing a gun, which will be taken back from her during a search by Pizarro without any consequences, except that we wonder how she will manage to free Florestan.
Thus the four characters who manage this first part (Pizarro comes later) each have a stronger psychological charge, which gives thickness to the whole. And it is also the quartet "Mir ist so wunderbar" which, far from being presented as often with the four characters lined up facing the audience, becomes a kind of dramatised pantomime, which announces the sequel where each character is drawn and which gives the quartet back its value of four interwoven monologues.
But Kratzer knows that he is in an Opéra-comique, that he also has to alternate comic or at least ironic effects with the thread of a story that is not always identifiable in the original version.
First of all, Pizarro's entrance is on horseback, very spectacular and surprising (chuckles in the audience), just like the entrance of sovereigns, or at least chiefs : he is the one who exerts the immediate force, in the name of the revolution (he is surrounded by soldiers in uniform, as in Otto Schenk’s production in Vienna), he is the force which one obeys. And he shares with Rocco political secrets from which Fidelio and Marzelline are excluded.
Then the aria Abscheulicher, in which Fidelio/Leonore finally exposes the truth, is also not an "abstract" aria sung like a pezzo chiuso, but an aria that will be resolutive both for her and for Marzelline, an essential aria that will explain the final coup de théâtre of Act II. Kratzer constructs a dramatic causality that was not in the libretto with its Deus ex machina end. He weaves motives, causes, and psychological springs giving the characters a real existence, first and foremost Marzelline.
Indeed, during her Abscheulicher aria, Fidelio becomes Leonore again, in a monologue where she is finally alone and herself. So she gets rid of her men's clothes, takes off the fabric that compresses her chest and becomes a woman again… But she is surprised by Marzelline, who discovers her secret, her lie, and the disillusion…
Contrary to the original opera where Marzelline remains dumbstruck in the final scene of the second act, Kratzer shows her discovering the extent of her disappointment at the end of the first act, which she ends by saying du lügst…du lügst… (you're lying), which will allow the character to mature and transcend her pain. Due to this discovery, Kratzer gives the character an even stronger existence, he makes Fidelio's monologue not an aria "for the spectator" but a dramatic aria that creates between Fidelio/Leonore and Marzelline another type of relationship, motivated by the fact that Marzelline has heard almost the whole aria and that she becomes at the same time not the abandoned lover but the only depositary of Fidelio's secret and almost his "accomplice".
I can hear the audience grumbling "and why?".
By giving the first act a valency, a network of motivations and characters, he also gives it its story. There is a story that closes, that of Marzelline and Fidelio – the only real story with a beginning and an end in this act -, there is another story that is the great (and sometimes black) history of revolutions, seen through the eyes of Pizarro-Robespierre and Rocco, the discreet civil servant who nevertheless thinks (and if Rocco in this production was an image of Bouilly, a civil servant during the revolution, who wrote this story?), and he gives to this opera, which is dramatically badly done even if musically marvellous, a dramatic flair that revives the spectator's interest, and makes things not functional (the first act for many spectators is a waiting room for the second) but historically accurate, precise, referenced. This realism of the set, this abundance of small details in the costumes, the furniture, the enriched relationships between the characters, the more assertive characters, give back to the Singspiel its initial function and also its nobility.
A second act in abstraction and utopia
But Kratzer knows that Fidelio is two radically different parts, and when the curtain rises on the second part, the initial space has disappeared, it becomes more abstract, a little bit structured like his production of Guillaume Tell in Lyon, in the same colour in black, grey and white, with a choir dressed in modern clothes and arranged around the playing space, no longer in a rectangle as in Lyon, but in a circle, like spectators of an ancient drama.
Tobias Kratzer is a playwright of great finesse, and seeing the radical difference between the spirit and the letter of the two parts of the work, instead of trying to accommodate it, as is often the case, and to construct a continuity, he shows the radicality of a rupture that he makes evident to the spectator, as if there were in some way two works in one, in a particularly didactic way. And first he changes the motto, which this time is "Wer immer du bist, werde ich dich retten" (Whoever you are, I will save you), which is a more individual motto with religious connotations, but also with heroic connotations. It is the individual gesture that is invoked here… and everybody thinks of Leonore… But.…
Kratzer obviously establishes links between the two parts, one being more rooted to the earth, to our reality or to its historical representation, more Aristotelian in a way, all in imitation, the other, more abstract, more Brechtian, more distant, sending us back to the affirmed ideals of the revolution of which he developed in the first act the twilight zones, but at the same time a more didactic theatre, and therefore more Brechtian as already stated. The first part is also more attached to a genre, the Singspiel, the other perhaps more attached to other genres, more external to opera, a choral work like the Ninth Symphony, a Mass (Missa solemnis?): there is something like the resolution of a Passion, that of Florestan, and it is therefore necessary to show the choir present from the beginning, as it would be with Bach – and as Bach's Passions were recently staged. For the difference between Act I and Act II is not only dramaturgical, it is also musical. Concrete/abstract, factual narrative/parabolic motive, two modes of making theatre and music share the same work, translating in a certain way the difficulty that had struck Beethoven to the point of not being able to resolve between 1805 and 1814 the drama he wanted to write ?
The arrangement of the audience-choir around a space where Florestan is (a rock to which he is attached) has several motivations and effects.
On the one hand it is the arrangement of the ancient theatre, with a circular playground in the centre, as if one were witnessing the performance of a sacred drama, with its cathartic effects, the spectators taking a direct part in what is happening, with video projections showing the tense faces and the frightened, tense, afflicted individual reactions of this or that spectator, illustrating the pity, horror, terror dear to the definition of tragedy.
On the other hand, we are obviously these people in contemporary costume, with our attitudes and our shortcomings, and our fashions too (the bottles of water we drink during the show, a very recent fashion… People are strangely thirstier than before…), and we are spectators of a suffering, an injustice, the slow death of a prisoner arbitrarily thrown in irons. We watch, but we do nothing. There is nothing there that would define the timeless, the drama of all times, it is on the contrary the inscription in our time, hic et nunc, which is affirmed here.
For this is also the schema of this act : we are witnessing a drama, but from outside, unable to intervene, unable to act, as if in front of a screen of continuous information channels, like today’s people, frightened and paralysed by the fears that run through them, in an unconscious collective that weeps for the victims of infertile tears.
Florestan in his initial monologue is aware of this collective gaze without effect, and his monologue in the midst of this frightened crowd watching the condemned man is all the more solitary and desperate.
A theatrical disposition, of a theatre that in a way represents the theatre of the world, and the drama of cowardly, comfortable societies that do not dare to intervene, giving the heroes a mandate to make revolutions and act, and then possibly follow them if it works. Terrible vision of today's world.
So, even the game becomes more abstract, more stripped down… No more objects, no more accessories, the characters intervene without weapons, like Leonore's intervention (the gun she had stolen had been taken away from her by Pizarro), so it's almost a pantomime that paralyzes Pizarro, whose intervention is interrupted by the sound of the trumpet. At the trumpet blast, he rushes in with a knife and is stopped by a shot that wounds him and interrupts the movement to assassinate Florestan.
And then it's the coup de théâtre.
In fact, Marzelline enters the space, carrying the trumpet slung over her shoulder and the rifle that had wounded Pizarro. Marzelline, left in the first act desperate because of Fidelio's "lie" (du lügst!…) returns to the stage as a liberator. The Deus ex machina artifice represented by the distant Minister, substitute of some sovereign, is thus eliminated : Marzelline's intervention being "motivated". In giving back to the character a psychology and a story, Kratzer makes her "mature" between the first and the second part : the pain but also the fact of knowing the cause of Fidelio/Leonore's presence has produced its effect, a human effect, an effect of courage : the character thus acquires a role and is fulfilled : it has grown. It is Marzelline who sounds the trumpet (she heard Pizarro's warning in the first act), it is Marzelline who shoots Pizarro, and it is Marzelline who saves and Leonore and Florestan. A noble response to the individual pain felt, a transfiguration of love into heroism. In short, Marzelline is a second Leonore who takes first place here : it is to her that the motto (“Whoever you are, I'll save you”) applies, because she acts for humanity and not only for her own interests (which is what Leonore does, on the contrary, whose position is more individual than ideological.
Honour to the heroic women who left their stamp on revolutions. Or were victims of them.
Several elements have to be underlined : by giving Marzelline an active role, Tobias Kratzer does not betray anything in the libretto, on the contrary, he shows that heroism can be shared in the face of oppression, and thus gives a precise role to each character. If Leonore finds her husband again (by singing him a lullaby, itself taken from Danton’s Death ("Es stehn zwei Sternlein an dem Himmel / Scheinen heller als der Mond") a lullaby that Lucile Desmoulins sings to Camille in prison, a lullaby from elsewhere that Büchner took from the German tradition, superb moment when she reconquers by this maternal gesture her lost husband. It is Marzelline who solves the drama, she passes from the usefulness to the role of protagonist, she acquires a history, a psychology, a maturity : like heroes, and especially those of a novel, she has undergone an apprenticeship. In short, she finally exists.
By doubling Leonore's gesture of love with that of Marzelline, Kratzer underlines at the same time that Marzelline offers a superb gesture of love to this Fidelio who has lied to her, she responds to pain with love, but with an enlarged love, "the love of humanity", if the play is called "Fidelio or conjugal love". Kratzer signs here "Marzelline or the love of humanity" which is transcended love. The idea is all the more accurate as it enriches, if possible, the humanist message of the work that everyone keeps underlining.
From then on things can take on a different dramatic logic. The people, the choir present around the sacred drama of Florestan's liberation, at first frightened by the intervention of the young girl, can now breathe and sing of liberation. Certainly, this is a "following" motivated by this heroic example. In the usual vision the choir intervenes a little incongruously in the final scene, without anyone really knowing where it comes from and what it is doing there. Kratzer gives it a story, which is the traditional story of the peoples, led by the heroes to revolt and self-assertion. From being a passive spectator, the choir becomes active and communicative.
Then the characters who lived the drama as protagonists can "fall in line", get back into "civilian" clothes, merge into the crowd while the "Minister" emerges from the crowd, as no longer a minister fallen from the sky, but emerging from the crowd, as mandated by it to enact the new law : the final chorus in fact privileges the collective, and drowns the heroes in this crowd of the anonymous. Then the choir can advance to the proscenium, sing about freedom, and the hall lights up (granted, this is a theatrical facility that we often see to celebrate "collective" ends that must mark joy or utopia, but which always works well cathartically…) ((Let us remember that it was Giorgio Strehler in 1973 who first used this trick in the final ensemble of the Nozze di Figaro in the world-famous Paris production)).
All's well that ends well ? No, it doesn't.
No, because just as subtly, Kratzer shows a character who has not learned his lesson, engrossed in his jealousy or hatred. A character who picks up the knife left by Pizarro and who no doubt rushes to take revenge. It is Jaquino, who has not understood the humanist lesson, the lesson of heroism, the sacrificial lesson of Marzelline. He is going to act with his knife, but the crowd escapes him, he remains alone, in the middle of the scene, the only one who keeps his original costume on, an 18th century jailor's costume, the only one who has no access to utopia. Marzelline was quite right not to love him anymore. He's not a great soul and he could become a danger in the future…
This is what it is all about in this production, which tries to give a logic to Fidelio's wobbly plot. Is it the director's hubris that seeks to enrich a work that is already cult in itself ? Not at all. The director intervenes to make up for the weaknesses of a libretto that everyone admits, he intervenes to put ALL the characters in compliance with the marked utopia of the second act, he intervenes in the logic of the work, without ever betraying it, and under the deceptive appearances, especially in the first part, of a traditional Singspiel, by taking over its laws, habits, and historical setting. He pays particular attention to the interactions between the actors-singers, the profile of the characters, each one very characterized. It is in this respect a work of exemplary pure theatre, of a very great precision in the movements, of a great rigour in the play, in the gestures and the expressions. It is a work that gives breathing space to the plot, without suffocating an opera that remains a cult opera, above everything else.
Finally, the spirit of this production touches me because it is profoundly Stendhalian, in the sense that great souls are staged who must survive in the face of oppression. There is in Stendhal a deep awareness of the French Revolution, of the ideals it conveyed, and of the souls it awakened. The Stendhalian novel is the tender novel of lost utopias ((Stendhal, quoted by Béatrice Didier, the renowned Stendhal specialist, in an article on Stendhal and musical romanticism, wrote that the music of Beethoven, Weber, Mozart upset "hearts made for music and for love")).
Here, the show draws us into tenderness, utopia, the radiant future. In these times of alarming dullness it is rather wonderfully Beethovenian.
A solid cast dominated by Lise Davidsen's Leonore
Beethoven's music, on the other hand, has never been contested (see the staging of Harry Kupfer at the Berlin Staatsoper for whom the music is the heroine), even if the spectator in general rather awaits the second act, the first appearing, despite the wonderful quartet, the aria "Abscheulicher" and the prisoners' choir, to be more an hors d'oeuvre. We have shown how the staging has restored meaning to the theatrical thread of the first part, giving all the characters a psychological depth that they do not always have. Musically, we know that Beethoven makes his vocal writing difficult. Both the roles of Leonore and Florestan have difficulties in finding their "right" voice. The role of Leonore/Fidelio is today given to dramatic sopranos, Nina Stemme, Anja Kampe, some years ago we had Hildegard Behrens, Gwyneth Jones or even further afield Nilsson, but we have also heard Cheryl Studer, who was never a dramatic soprano, or Gundula Janowitz, who after being Marzelline for Karajan, was Fidelio for Bernstein. The Fidelio/Leonore range from Kirsten Flagstad to Christa Ludwig or Elisabeth Söderström.
The same versatility can be found in the role of Florestan, which includes Jon Vickers, Anton Dermota, Julius Patzak, Siegfried Jerusalem and Peter Hoffmann. A long time ago I heard under Barenboim in Paris a Siegfried Jerusalem at the beginning of his career who was not yet the dramatic tenor who sang Tristan, but Froh in the Chéreau production in Bayreuth and he could not cope with the high notes of the murderous cabaletta of his second act aria.
In 1805, as in 1814, the concept of dramatic soprano or strong tenor was not the norm : the voices were much more ductile, adaptable. Singers now considered Mozartians could approach these roles (like a Dermota or an Edda Moser a few decades ago). The strong and big voice must be flexible too, must be able to assert and dominate agility. Singers like Ben Heppner or Jonas Kaufmann, having sung Mozart, are adjusted to Florestan, a role that future great Lohengrins have sung. The vocal breadth of a soprano or dramatic tenor combined with Mozart's agility and finesse sounds today a bit like squaring the circle, voices being categorized so much. Dramatic and agile sopranos are not common, and tenors capable of both heroism and vocal subtleties are not in great supply either.
From this point of view, the distribution chosen in London is rather solid and judicious.
Jonas Kaufmann has been singing his Florestan for many years, he recorded it with Abbado in Lucerne and sings it quite often. The role is rather short, but it opens with a formidable aria, where the whole spectrum is solicited, in two parts, the second of which, the cabaletta is strewn with pitfalls and devastating high-pitched notes. Jonas Kaufmann here gets out of the first part with supreme elegance and great mastery, his "Gott" is as usual completely stunning, but in the cabaletta the high notes are a bit more on the borderline. It's tenser, less brilliant, we have heard him more in form in this role. In the same way, his final interventions are "at the limit", there is a slight lack of brilliance, difficulty or fatigue. We don't deduct anything from this, because we heard him recently in such dazzling conditions (Die Tote Stadt in Munich) that it is probably a temporary fatigue : the singer is so intelligent that he masters this difficulty with professionalism, not to say with great panache. The fact remains that he has already convinced us more. It is a role that suits his voice, his style of singing, which privileges phrasing, the sculpture of the word and the intelligence of expression over gratuitous effects. Moreover, the polymorphic nature of the role forbids us to emphasize the effects. A performance slightly underneath the habitual, but very respectable and of an extraordinary intelligence, as always with him.
Opposite him, and the others, a Leonore on the contrary very young and having arrived on the international market two or three years ago, Lise Davidsen, who we will get used to seeing from now on all the stages of the world. Lise Davidsen, Norwegian like Flagstad, immediately strikes us with the health, ease and power of her voice, big, supple, technically very concerned to respect Beethoven's difficult writing ("Abscheulicher" impeccable, where everything is mastered – the high notes, the low notes, the agility, the expression). Beyond an exceptional voice that immediately imposes itself, it also imposes a character of a “big-boy-who-grew-too-much” in the first part. Her impressive size could be an obstacle, but it is not, thanks to the way the character is generated by the staging and thanks to the way she also masters her acting, which is in turn juvenile, embarrassed, direct, tender, and often very moving. She immediately established herself as a great Leonore, a role she took on on stage after singing it in a concert performance with Nézet-Séguin in Montreal. It is the greatest triumph of the evening, and it is amply deserved.
The young American Amanda Forsythe, who sang Marzelline, also gave a very honourable performance. The voice may be a bit too small, especially at the beginning and especially when faced with the “hurricane” Davidsen, but the initial impression soon fades away thanks to well-controlled arias, a technique under control, an expressiveness that shows that the text has been worked on. Her fresh, direct playing also responds to Davidsen's own. In the "intimate" scenes, they are both very involved and her character is constantly gaining ground. Her final intervention in the second act, her last words in chorus with Rocco or in the quartet, stand out from the ensemble, as if she were singing to herself ("Wer ein solches Weib/Stimm' in unsern Jubel ein ! »). She is the first at the end to put on a "civilian" outfit (she puts on a jacket), and to enter into the anonymity mentioned above. She occupies the stage well, assuming her "new" character. The impression is largely positive.
Georg Zeppenfeld is Rocco. A Rocco who, as we've noticed, stands out in contrast to the usual figures, who tend to be the type honest father a bit plump and ambiguous. Here the character is elegant, educated, and this fits perfectly with Zeppenfeld's personality and always elegant singing, with a clear phrasing and timbre, very expressive and very attentive to the words. Zeppenfeld creates a really unusual Rocco, with a character that really does not fit in this prison. And the creation is very successful : it also brings him a great success.
The impression is more contrasting as regards Simon Neal as Pizarro. We know the singer, who is intelligent and often expressive. He is still expressive here, but the staging requires a non-caricatural darkness, mixed with "ideological motivations". He could meet these requirements, but the voice has lost its high notes, its brilliance, and in total he does not impress vocally and his playing does not make an impact. And so it is a disappointment.
Jaquino is the tenor Robin Tritschler. There have been (rare) Jaquinos with a greater vocal brilliance. The unloved character remains pale and uninteresting. Yet the staging, which takes care to give everybody a role and not to forget anyone along the way, gives him a more marked personality, mainly in the first act where he is part of the "gang" of prison workers, and where he has been visibly ousted by Fidelio. Rocco prefers Fidelio to Jaquino because he works better and Marzelline prefers Fidelio to Jaquino because he provokes feelings she no longer has for Jaquino. He is the only one who gains nothing at the end of the second act and he shows it. Kratzer leaves him alone and distraught, left aside by the course of the story, the last image of the opera. Tritschler is effective on stage, but vocally he is paler.
The minister is Egils Siliņš who we have often seen in Wagner operas (especially as Wotan). He is no longer the substitute of a triumphant sovereign that would have been sung by a Peter Mattei with a noble timbre and perfect projection. In this staging the minister is an individual from the people, an anonymous representative, and his opaque timbre, his slightly tired voice suits this character who has become paler at the same time. The staging in a way justifies the veiled and tired voice of the Latvian singer.
Finally, let's greet the two prisoners Felipe Manu and Timothy Dawkins, the latter with a rather striking bass voice.
Vigorous local forces and functional-only musical direction
Beautiful performance by the Royal Opera Chorus, conducted by William Spaulding, of great tradition, who perfectly plays the choir of the ancient tragedies in the second part, with a real almost individualized playing effort (as we can see on the video screen), powerful and vigorous at the end.
As conductor, Antonio Pappano is, as is well known, particularly appreciated by the British public, judging by the triumph he received. He offers an efficient, dynamic and attentive stage support (he is an exemplary opera conductor), he has a very functional ensemble at his disposal, but without any particular colour or depth. Some moments remain flat. One does not hear in this conducting Beethoven's great symphonic potential, which one perceives immediately most of the time during the introduction of the second act, often the hint of a conductor with a great personality. Abbado in the past as well as Barenboim or Petrenko today do not let this moment pass and make it an intense dramatic moment full of depth and an impressive prelude to the appearance of Florestan ; Antonio Pappano does not do much here, does not really dramatize the moment. You can hear in the first part (the Singspiel), that his conducting only accompanies a dynamic and varied set, less so in the second part, where he lets the voices blossom, but the orchestra is too shy, whereas, on the contrary, one expects "Beethoven as he is". The conducting is efficient, functional, the orchestra without any technical problem, but the sound remains rather banal. On the side of the pit, it is therefore a small disappointment, in an evening that remains marked by other qualities. So we come out happy.
© DR (Set Acte II)
This post was written by Guy Cherqui