Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Fidelio (1814)
Singspiel in two acts
Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner revised by Georg Friedrich Treitschke after "Léonore ou l'amour conjugal" by Claude Nicolas Bouilly.
First performance of the definitive version on 23 May 1814 at the Thetaer an der Wien, Vienna
Dialogues rewritten by Andriy Zholdak

Musical direction  Andrés Orozco Estrada
Stage direction, set and lighting design  Andriy Zholdak
Costume design  Andriy Zholdak and  Simon Machabeli
Set design  Andriy Zholdak and  Daniel Zholdak
Video design  Etienne Guiol
Associate Video design  Malo Lacroix
Sound design  Juan Verdaguer
Dramaturgy  Luc Joosten

Don Fernando  Mark Kurmanbayev*
Florestan  Eric Cutler
Rocco  James Creswell
Don Pizarro  Nicholas Brownlee
Leonore  Jacquelyn Wagner
Marzelline  Anna El-Khashem
Jaquino  Linard Vrielink
Erster Gefangener  Stefan Kennedy
Zweiter Gefangener  Peter Arink

*Dutch National Opera Studio

Chorus of Dutch National Opera
Chorus master  Edward Ananian-Cooper

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Part of the Holland Festival

Amsterdam, Dutch National Opera, Wednesday 5 June 2024, 7.30pm

Fidelio is not the most obvious of operas to stage, and if most stagings are forgotten as soon as they are produced, the great directors since the end of the Second World War have sometimes failed in their attempts, Giorgio Strehler springs to mind. I remember Wernicke's work in Salzburg, and perhaps more recently Bieito's in Munich, but who in Paris remembers David Walsh in 1982 or even Johan Simons in 2008, or Deborah Warner (2018) and Werner Herzog (1999) at La Scala ? In 2008, a young Anja Kampe in Baden-Baden under the baton of a luminous Abbado performed in a gritty production by the film-maker Chris Kraus, who has been consigned to history's dustbin… and so on.

The story of the work's creation, which spans some ten years, shows a few kinks in the origins of a work that was born a bit of a hybrid, such as the clear difference in atmosphere between the first act, which is heavily referenced to Opéra-comique, and a second act that is very heterogeneous, but with more melodramatic music, almost epic in its breathing, and ending in a choral explosion that heralds the Ninth. All this creates a problem of stylistic homogeneity that every director has to contend with. And when you consider the sheer vocal difficulty, especially in the roles of Florestan and Leonore, you realise that this is always a risky undertaking for any theatre.

The Dutch National Opera & Ballet decided to stage Fidelio as the inaugural production of the Holland Festival 2024, and to entrust it to Andriy Zholdak, whom the French know from Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress, which was a real success, and Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, a production that I consider to be a benchmark, both of which were staged in Lyon at the time by a particularly inspired Serge Dorny. And in Amsterdam Zholdak has decided to take up the challenge boldly, proposing a highly personal vision that may be disorientating, retaining the issue of liberation but ignoring the libretto (which is not a masterpiece) and creating an entirely different context, a kind of personal mental fresco. A "Fidelio it’s me", as Flaubert said "Madame Bovary it’s me". A scandal on the Amstel, but also a very contemporary, very strong and very personal look at the possibilities of Beethoven's work.


Context of the composition

There are a few basic points to bear in mind when discussing Fidelio, the first of which, already mentioned above, is the heterogeneous style of the work, which is divided into two very distinct parts, and the modern reading of it.

Most of the time today, all we retain of the opera's meaning is the song of grace that punctuates the second act, in other words the victory of light (of the Enlightenment in the 18th century sense of the term) over darkness, of freedom over oppression, in a humanist impulse very much in the vein of the composer who regarded the French Revolution and Bonaparte with a certain sympathy (at least initially) and who was also the composer of the Ninth Symphony, which is so symbolic.

But Beethoven was also aware of the vogue for opéra-comique that had marked the revolutionary period in France, because it was touring musical Europe, the greatest success of which was Cherubini's Lodoïska, in 1791 at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris, with 200 performances during the revolutionary period. Beethoven admired Cherubini, even to the point of “borrowing” a few notes of music from him, and Cherubini had become a master of the genre. Let's not forget that his masterpiece Médée (1797) is also an opéra-comique contrary to popular belief, and was also premiered at the Théâtre Feydeau, as was Lodoïska.

Why focus on Lodoïska ?
Firstly, because the story inspired many composers of the period, impressed by Cherubini's success, starting with Mayr and then Rossini (Torvaldo and Dorliska in 1815) and including Kreutzer, the latest incarnation of the work, by Alessandro Curmi, dating from 1845… not to mention three ballets.
The reason ? It is the very example of the "rescue play", a genre that was very fashionable at the end of the 18th century, here inspired by a best-selling novel from 1786, Une année de la vie et des amours du chevalier de Faublas by Jean Baptiste Louvet de Couvray : To put it simply, a young girl, Lodoïska, is locked up by a very wicked villain in a tower at the bottom of a dark castle hidden in a deep forest, and she is rescued by her fiancé, Count Floreski… The resemblance between the names Floreski and Florestan is immediately apparent…
Beethoven and his librettist Joseph Sonnleithner drew inspiration for their opera very closely from another "rescue play", a recent work by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, Leonore ou l'amour conjugal, first performed in 1798 as a play mixed with songs (music by Pierre Gaveaux), and premiered once again at the Théâtre Feydeau… The play was inspired by a true story in which a woman disguised as a man was hired as a jailer to free her husband from prison in the city of Tours in France during the Revolution.

It is a "rescue play" with an inverted scheme, since it is the man who is locked up and the woman who frees him, the brave wife, as celebrated in the final chorus of Fidelio.
Beethoven wanted to capture the public by writing a fashionable work in the style of the time, while at the same time powerfully celebrating his ideals of freedom and resistance to oppression.
The work was premiered (1805) at the newly built Theater an der Wien (1801) (which also saw the premiere of several of Beethoven's symphonies, including the Third, Fifth and Sixth), but it was performed there several times before the final version in 1814, a sign of the difficulty of giving it a real dramaturgical framework.

This is why Fidelio is not in itself an untouchable theatrical monument, as its imbalances and awkwardnesses testify, even if it is a musical monument.

But even musically, modern performances vary, particularly as regards whether or not to insert the Leonore III Overture, introduced by Gustav Mahler (1904), which has been taken up by some conductors and rejected by others today in the fabric of Act II. In Munich, in the Calixto Bieito production, it is played as the opera overture, while in Act II Bieito introduces a quartet performance of the (shortened) adagio from Op.132 in A minor, which is one of the highlights of the production.

As we can see, Fidelio is the very example of an 'open' work, scenically, dramaturgically and also musically, and not just on the initiative of wicked directors, but also of musicians, and not just any musicians (Mahler).

What's more, it is a Singspiel, a sort of Germanic version of the opéra-comique, a play with spoken dialogue, like other works of the period or slightly earlier, such as Die Zauberflöte or Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The nature of these works has made it possible for contemporary directors to intervene in the dialogue to modify it partially or completely, as in the case of Wajdi Mouawad's work on Die Entführung aus dem Serail, at the Lyon Opera in 2016, or the spoken dialogue rewritten by Dmitry Tcherniakov in the opéra-comique par excellence, Carmen, at Festival d’Aix in 2017.

It is easier to intervene in dialogues than in recitatives, for musical reasons, and intervening in dialogues can have dramaturgical motivations, but also reasons of accessibility to meaning, while keeping the musical numbers. There are many examples of this, such as the dialogue re-adapted by Agathe Mélinand from Offenbach's opéras-bouffes directed by Laurent Pelly (because of the mythological allusions in his works, which are difficult for today's audiences to grasp…), which are never commented on.

There's nothing new : since 1953, the dialogue has been regularly changed in stagings of Fidelio.

So when Andriy Zholdak took over the work to offer a singular version that was violently received by the audience in Amsterdam, he was not innovating, but following a tradition that had been established for many years. In 1953, a production of Fidelio in Stuttgart caused a scandal and was violently booed because it switched arias, rewrote dialogue and had a narrator summarise it in the proscenium.
The name of this sacrilegious director ? Wieland Wagner…

In fact, Fidelio, for the many reasons mentioned above, is a special case among the great international standards of opera. It is a opéra-comique, but also a melodrama, a work full of breaks in tone, from opera buffa to the darkest of moods, juxtaposed, and whose development is full of modifications, remorse, successive versions… It therefore lends itself to both rewrites and restructurings (and the history of the work on stage is rich in this, both scenically and musically) if, however, the general line of meaning is always retained.

Andriy Zholdak's rewriting of the dialogues (in English, no doubt easier to learn for a largely English-speaking cast) is therefore nothing new and nothing revolutionary, insofar as the final image is indeed the choral image intended by Beethoven, where soloists and choir sing the final part together, a resolutive part, an image of hope and openness, fully in keeping with the meaning of the work, which closes in a kind of eternal order that goes beyond the anecdotal, heard like everything the audience had seen before and which seemed to disturb them somewhat.


Andriy Zholdak's path in Fidelio

The first point to emphasise is that Zholdak retains the essential line taken from Bouilly's play : a woman frees her husband locked away in his prison.

If we stick to the work and its own dramaturgy, at the end of the first act Leonore-Fidelio proposes that the prisoners come out to check on her husband.
But, like Elisabeth looking for Tannhäuser on the pilgrims' return from Rome, she does not find him. He is no "ordinary" prisoner, Florestan is in a "beyond" prison, in a place that is almost like the tomb of Aida and Radamès, a secret, inaccessible place, a non-place, for a man who, as the text emphasises, is dehumanising himself, Florestan is in a world separated from the human. For Pizarro, it is a matter of emptying him of his humanity, of animalising him, of reducing him to formlessness in a place between the cell and the grave. "Der unten stirbt", the one underneath is dying. What Rocco has to do is dig a grave within the grave… Florestan is in the darkness of the world.

Jacquelyn Wagner (Leonore lecturer)

From these elements of the narrative – a prisoner beyond prison, even on the threshold of the beyond, in a hell, the power of a Pizarro who is in the work the figure of the absolute villain, the traitor who would also be master of darkness (as are the villains in “rescue plays” or fairy tales), and a woman eager to free him – Zholdak constructs a story of today, marked by the anxieties of our time, and a personal story, marked by his own anxieties.
But he also turns it into a long, virtually end-to-end nightmare that begins in a bedroom and ends in the same bedroom, in that circularity where you wake up wondering what you've been through.

Jacquelyn Wagner (Leonore), Eric Cutler (Florestan), bedroom..and fatal mirror

The question that Zholdak raises is that of the nature of this prison, the symbolic function that it can have, including the way in which it is translated in the work and how it can speak to us today. Of course, there are some terrible prisons today : Kolima, Abu Graib, Guantanamo, etc. The list is not exhaustive, and the imagination is at its best. But these prisons are singular indicators of a world in disarray, which Zholdak places on a cosmic level. From the outset, Zholdak sets out a cosmology of disorder, making Leonore the theorist of the drowning of the world in dark matter.

Leonore is a researcher in cosmology, who presents at a conference the apocalyptic future of matter, dark matter of course, which is going to suck the world in, probably faster than we thought. There's something threatening about this beginning, a kind of matter for collapsologists. And the story of Fidelio seems to be torn between the threatening cosmic and the refuge of faith, since Leonore, on her way out of her conference to join Florestan, passes through a church… If there is Hell, there is necessarily its opposite, if there is the world behind the mirror, there is necessarily the world in front of it.

In the original libretto, in the first part Leonore-Fidelio experiences a kind of simple false happiness, a  false promise, since Marzelline is in love with “him-she”, she lives in fact in that strange world of the prison where there are prisoners but we don't see them at first. And there is the infernal beyond where Florestan lies.
Marzelline is in love with Fidelio, and Rocco, her father, would consent to this union… except that Jaquino, her ex-promise, is rejected… a very conformist love triangle full of false pretence, which Zholdak very subtly uses in his story.
Zholdak's world of norms is that of a married Florestan and Leonore, who love each other, in a kind of bourgeois everyday life of today. These are the facts. There is the world under the light, and there is the dark world, as in the libretto, but not in the same context.
Zholdak therefore constructs a kind of Alice-Leonore in the land of Hell, an Alice-Leonore who goes behind the mirror through which Florestan has been drawn by the Evil One – in the guise of Karl Lagerfeld, the black designer, the creator of the Nadir, Pizarro…
Zholdak's world is a tense, anguished one, a world that also represents man torn between good and evil, where good and evil coexist and take turns to take control.

Eric Cutler (Florestan)

At one point, Florestan wears a wolf mask that makes him look like the Beast from Cocteau's film Beauty and the Beast (1946), the ugly that masks the good, the monster that is good, like the Socratic Silenus. As if human being were nothing but a metonym for the world. When I saw him waving the Ukrainian flag in the salute, I thought at first it was a captatio benevolentiae, to soften the audience's aggression ; Then I said to myself that this divided, ebullient, terribly pessimistic vision that he was displaying in his work no doubt also had something to do with his own situation, the situation of his native country, which in a way went behind the mirror on 24 February 2022, moving from normality, from an unsatisfactory ordinary perhaps, but which we can live with, to an a‑normality, ab normis. We, as distant and unspoilt citizens, are constantly pointing out that war is on our doorstep : Ukraine has gone behind a looking glass, into a world governed by the laws of war, to the gates of Hell. Zholdak makes no direct reference to this situation, but his world, torn between Dante and Hieronymus Bosch, a garden of poisoned delights, is a world that leads to the abyss, and we cannot deny that we also fear that abyss…
Leonore, asleep, lives through the nightmare of Florestan's abduction by the Devil, in a race to the abyss that has all the Mephistophelean aspects of a Faustian race : In a way, Leonore is a Marguerite who saves her Faust, and the final scene, in which she returns to normality, is a kind of apotheosis of faith close to the Faustian apotheosis, ascending to Heaven under the nose and in the face of a Mephistopheles who can't stand it and who angrily goes back behind his mirror, fire in hand… evil is still there. For Zholdak, going through the dream is obviously an easy way out.
Zholdak approaches the Fidelio question not from an illuminist or political angle, but from a metaphysical one, nourished by art, painting, cinema and literature, hence the abundance of references. For him, Florestan was dragged into this world by the Devil-Mephisto without having wanted it, unlike Faust : Florestan is Faust without the pact, and therefore the victim of absolute evil without faith, law or pact. As in a certain way in the libretto : in Zholdak as in Sonnleithner, it is the reign of the arbitrary, which is the opposite of freedom and morality.


Beethoven is dead

In the "pitch" of the Programm booklet, the first word is Beethoven is dead.

This expression is beyond the facts, just as Florestan is beyond prison. Beethoven is music that constantly tells of a world to be dreamt, where the religious and metaphysical dimension is always present, music that works on contrasts, light, harmony, beauty versus darkness, disorder, ugliness, but which in the end always celebrates the harmony rediscovered and the right order, as in Fidelio, the victory of the Light, but in a battle that is always to be fought, always begun again and always won.

Zholdak confides that he did not start from the libretto, but from Beethoven's music and what it expressed for him. Beethoven is obviously beyond theatre, beyond the genre of
opera-comique, beyond melodrama even. Naturally, this is a way for Zholdak to escape the diktat of the libretto, to explore an elsewhere that he can link to the profound nature of Beethoven's music, and to his profound nature in terms of its ultimate meaning, without having to pass through the forks in the neck of a poorly crafted libretto. One might even wonder whether Beethoven's construction of a clear musical opposition between the first and second acts (even if abscheulicher ! and the prisoners' chorus in first act are incursions of melodrama into opera-comique) doesn't consider this first act a little traditional and conformist, with its roundabout love triangle, and this ordinary family life in the context of a prison doesn't send us a clue either that this supposedly ordinary world is a mess when on the other side of the wall people are rotting away, and the ambiguous attitude of Rocco, a brave guy who is a bit of a coward, is another clue : When freedom is stifled and people go on living normal lives with their little loves and their little cowardice, something is wrong.

Inflamed circle, infernal circle

In his staging, Zholdak visualises the battle between light and shadow head-on, without going through the anecdotal motions of the libretto, a libretto whose dramaturgy he has perfectly understood in the first act. For example, by making Rocco, Jaquino and Marzelline adjutants of the Devil, tools designed to dilute and lose Leonore, he is perfectly consistent with the original libretto, where Leonore-Fidelio in the first act is entangled in her affair with Marzelline, where she is the object of Jaquino's distrust and even hatred, and where all the anecdotes are basically designed to divert her from the only goal that matters to her, the liberation of Florestan. So it's not hardly surprising that at one point he makes Rocco the (pale) double of Pizarro, also dressed in Lagerfeld. All this obviously makes sense ; in terms of the narrative scheme, they are elements of disruption in the narrative's equilibrium.

Engaging the imagination

The quest : Jacquelyn Wagner (Leonore) confronted by the image of Florestan

For this journey into the infra-world, Zholdak draws on a visual imagination that may seem motley, but which is also highly coherent, if we think of Faust-Mephisto, Dante, but also a highly religious imaginary world, with recurring themes (the white/black angel, the snake…) while offering images clearly referenced to the present day, a present day overloaded with images, videos and effects that are sometimes reminiscent of Heroic-Fantasy, a whole range of imagery that invades the imagination of today's generations.

Without going into detail about the profusion of astonishing images, which have the disorder of dreamlike images, with elastic proportions, striking in their repetitive side, but with an undeniable plastic beauty, we are struck by a breathless rhythm, much more breathless than in the original booklet, as if the quest took precedence over the anecdote, as if there was a desperate, even tragic, quest to reach the quintessence of Beethoven by ignoring the pointless, daring to seem foolish in order to give weight to the only meaning that counts, the refusal to be sucked into the darkness, into that beyond the prison that is beyond life, that sucks it in and phagocytizes it in a movement that seems irreversible.

This is Zholdak's anguish, the anguish of an intellectual and artistic-scientific life gradually devoured by the obscure, the formless, what is below (infernus/Inferno) the etymological hell, Florestan's prison, the world of black light, the Nadir.

We are on the threshold of Victor Hugo's evocation in La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Centuries):
Voici l’heure des feux sans nombre ;
L’heure où, vu du nadir, ce globe semble, ayant
Son large cône obscur sous lui se déployant,
Une énorme comète d’ombre

(This is the hour of countless fires ;
The hour when, seen from the nadir, this globe seems, having
Its wide dark cone unfolding beneath it,
A huge comet of shadow.)

It is this “comet of shadows” that Zholdak explores, a comet, symbol of passage, of speed, also a recurring element in Heaven, and here a devouring presence that I think is also an expression of the director's existential anguish.

Jacquelyn Wagner (Leonore) between light and mirror

Will Leonore's light, which is Beethoven's light, the light that remains after he has passed away (Beethoven is dead…) succeed in imposing itself ? That's what's at stake in the slightly mad dream in which the director is leading the audience.
Without going into detail, we must obviously try to identify, decipher or evoke the recurring symbols of this work.

  • Realism versus fantasy :

The show begins as a succession of initial "realistic" data, which play on the theatre and film images. These elements are interwoven to create a singular disorder without music, the conference "International cosmic day, Space conference, Amsterdam, 5 June 2024",  with all the ambiguities of the words cosmic and space if we start referring to a philosophical, Beethovenian cosmos, and to theatrical space, all the more so as the date is that of the Première, 5 June, and the venue is Amsterdam, obviously intended both as a wink and as a starting point for the situation of the spectator, who is thus included in this quest, thus implicated.
It's a way of moving away from the expected (the libretto) to refocus on our world, in a Hic et nunc that's a little on the edge of the abyss. It begins in the theatre, lectern, lecturer, audience, then we move on to the film, the lecturer leaving the conference to rush off in a taxi (with a strange, slightly psychic driver who turns out to be Pizarro-Diable) to a church, candles, flowers, then abruptly back to the theatre, in a comfortable bedroom setting where she joins her Florestan (we assume it's him). Karl Lagerfeld brandishes a snake, and we immediately see the allusion, dragging Florestan behind the mirror.

Pizarro (Nicholas Brownlee) and the snake…

Evil has done its work. The biblical symbol of the snake, but also the Orphic symbol, to visit Hell in music. The symbols are multi-polar…

The alternation between the realism of the film and the theatre, which also begins as a realistic element, shifts into the dreamlike and irrational, with the disappearance of Florestan, dressed all in white but with the wings of a black angel, dragged away by a Devil in the well-known guise of Lagerfeld, can only be disconcerting…

The initial room has recurring elements in its décor : a light bulb, small at first, then gigantic, like the light to be continued, lit, suspended, then lying down, defeated, facing a kind of chandelier, an immense suspended blunderbuss, almost a motif of another (or an “other”, coming from an unknown world) Light, which we will see again on the ground but still illuminated in a scene recalling Florestan's childhood, where this blunderbuss is reflected in a distorting mirror.

In the afterlife, time and space are meaningless, and Florestan (Eric Cutler) meets the already angelic child… light and distorting mirror.

It's clear that light is a permanent element, although we don't always know whether it's the Light we're looking for or the diabolical anti-light.

  • Light is in fact everywhere in this show, the light of a giant light bulb (at the end, on the floor) but also the blinding light of rings (a splendid image) that refer to the wedding ring (the story of Marzelline and Fidelio or Jaquino) but that I cannot separate, given the context, from the infernal circles, especially when the ring bursts into flames, as the images of Leonore burst into flames one after the other under the action of Pizarro the devil. 

    Jacquelyn Wagner (Leonore) and Nicholas Brownlee (Pizarro)

    The light comes from a variety of sources : it is flame (starting with the candles in the church), it is electric arc, and it is also projection, when the floor seems to reproduce the luminous line of a sundial.

  • Rai of light, a sort of sundial between two "Lagerfelds": Nicholas Brownlee (Pizarro) and James Creswell (Rocco).

    It shines in the darkness, like an antidote or sometimes a trap wielded by the evil one, like a comet in the dark…

    Meteorite or spaceship ?
  • Several times, a kind of unidentified flying object appears, whether a ship or a stone (one thinks of the Meteorite from Mundruczo's Lohengrin in Munich), adding another element to a story on the edge of comics, on the edge of science fiction, juggling with the chaos of fantasy.
  • The Evil One (Pizarro) has, as we mentioned, the features of Karl Lagerfeld, a universally known and immediately identifiable figure, rising from Hell, or from the afterlife since he too is dead.
    A journalist[2] interviewing Lagerfeld gave a definition of him that seemed to me to correspond fairly well to the figure mentioned here : "The guru behind his dark glasses, trying to sort out what was myth and what was real. In the end, having spent some time with Mr Lagerfeld, it seems to me, as far as I can tell, that the man really is a myth. The fruit of a strange alchemy, the person who descends the stairs of the Lagerfeld house, multiplied infinitely by the mirrors, has managed to transcend his mortal envelope to become a pure creature of creativity". Myth, mirrors, guru, creature of creativity : these are the words that could define the universe of this show, filled with mirrors that open and close, like so many gateways to another world, but also define a "black creator", hidden behind his dark glasses, recognizable and unrecognizable, who offers himself to view and at the same time withdraws from it, like a figure before being a man.
    Dressing the devil as Lagerfeld is not to say that the real Lagerfeld is the devil personified, but the opposite : to show how the devil can borrow a mythical (and vanished) figure from creation, an object of admiration, and show that he too is a creator of universes, a way of deceiving his world. The devil is everywhere, and in Lagerfeld he is the master of black, frock coat and glasses, immediately identifiable as a master, as an 'authority'.

At the same time, in a more indirect, oblique way, I can't help but see another wink    from Zholdak in this struggle between Leonore, the woman, and Lagerfeld, the man who dresses a woman-object, a struggle between the woman-subject and the man who wants to reduce her to a woman-object.

  • In this dark world, this hellish world, communication is different and common language no longer exists. Let's remember the world of demons as seen by Berlioz in the Damnation de Faust

Tradioun Marexil fir trudinxé burrudixé !
Fory my dinkorlitz.
O mérikariu ! O mévixé ! Méri kariba !
O merikariu ! O midara caraibo lakinda, merondor dinkorlitz, merondor…

Eric Cutler (Florestan), Nicolas Brownlee (Pizarro) and the numbers

Berliozian language is incomprehensible, but legible and articulate, perhaps (someday…) translatable, but here the diabolical language is that of numbers, antilanguage, literally indecipherable, not without Zholdak's malice.

Numbers are obviously a reference to mathematics, to science, to the parade of computer numbers, to equations…He sees this world, in which all language is transformed into numbers that are forbidden to the greatest number, as a very clear threat of dehumanization (algorithms, artificial intelligence, etc.), in other words a dominant world that is impossible for ordinary mortals, for ordinary humanity, to master. It's clear that Zholdak is trying to symbolically bring together for today's audience the elements that plunge us into the infernal darkness, a Hell already within us or among us, and that Florestan's training in that world is literally the end of ours. Zholdak evokes a Pandemonium. He makes the Fidelio of Beethoven Alice-Leonore in the land of anti-wonders

  • Finally, some images indicate the universal power of the Black over the world, and at the same time a vision of the world below, of what the Hell Below can be for our humanity, through a video image very simple, a fixed camera which shows the Shanghai metro passing by, but skillfully, the metro passes from that of Shanghai to that of New York, with the same framing, as if on the one hand Pizzaro-Diable embraced the world in one moment, and that this world, in its difference, was the same, infernal, populous, mechanized and automatic.
  • In the midst of this turmoil, between light and black light, between Pizarro-Devil and Leonore-Alice, between rings of alliance and infernal circles, there are also more traditional images, like the one that follows us throughout the show of the black angel, the exterminating angel in a way, and the white angel, the diabolical and the angelic, these black or white wings passed from hand to hand (or back to back), of which Florestan is a symbol, dressed in white but clad in black wings by Pizarro, in this journey strongly marked by the myth of Faust (Faust I dates from 1808… ). 

    The Black Angel

    It's a recurring motif, as if the struggle between good and evil is reflected in the transition from black to white, from white to black wings… Some will say it's naïve, others that it's a symbol too close to cliché, but it's also part of a universe where Zholdak mixes aesthetics, symbols and profiles in a calculated disorder, where the cryptic and the obvious mix and confront each other in a maelstrom that is the world, while assuming the naiveties that are also part of it.

  • In this world, there are also reminders, evocations and contexts that stand out : for example, the Jaquino/Marzelline relationship, which is obviously difficult in the original libretto. It could even be said that in the story of Fidelio, Marzelline is the one who loses everything, Jaquino at the beginning and Fidelio at the end, the very example of 'usefulness' in the cynical sense of the term, just as Pizarro-the Devil-uses Rocco Marzelline and Jaquino as obstacles in Leonore's path. Zholdak constructs images that are at once traditional, poetic and also terribly cynical, such as this vision of a forest, with a well in the foreground at the foot of which lies the couple Jaquino-Marzelline, a 19th-century, papier-mâché well that contrasts with the overall context, like a remnant of traditional theatre that is being exhaled, a remnant of a romantic cliché that also reminded me of Pelléas et Mélisande from afar. 

    Anna El-Khashem (Marzelline) , Linard Vrielink 5jaquino) on the edge of the real theatre well
  • In the same vein, this luminous, cinematographic theatre, with its fire and flames, lights and mirrors, has two cave entrances in the foreground of the proscenium, in rocks that are just as cardboard, just as worthy of a theatre of yesteryear, a vision of the falsehood that we must not believe in to constantly remind us that we are in the theatre, which represents the world, where we play with the real, the represented, reality and shadows : on the proscenium, two of Plato's caves face each other. Since the Baroque period, theatre has been the son of the Plato’s allegory of the Cave…

So I can understand that this disorder, this accumulation can be annoying or disconcerting, and that we may not understand all the signs. I maintain that it's not essential to understand everything in theatre. You can't understand all the allusions and references to Raphael in a painting like The School of Athens, or a painting by Jackson Pollock, or certain passages by James Joyce or Marcel Proust, whom you admire.

Above all, this show reveals a kind of universal anguish, a metaphorical portrait of the world's anguish, seen through the prism of Andriy Zholdak's own personal anguish, as he ponders the significance of Florestan at the bottom of a black hole, pursued for some reason by a criminal Pizarro.

What to do in the face of evil for evil's sake ? What can you do when the world is drifting ? The initial metaphor of a world destined for inexorable absorption is one of the keys : to know that is also to try to defend oneself.

This is also why Zholdak offers a double final vision :

  • on the one hand, stripped of all the trappings of theatre, the choristers and soloists, all emerging from the two very Platonic caverns of the proscenium, sing of harmony and therefore of Light rediscovered : Beethoven is back with us,
  • on the other, in the theatre, the irreducible presence of dark matter, behind the mirror, biding its time.

Pizarro (Nicholas Brownlee) is not dead… to be continued

There is no ultimate reconciliation in Beethoven ; there is only a series of utopian reconciliations, but they are all conditional, one-sided, temporary. Every work in Beethoven's overall production is part of a larger whole, and every affirmation, every happy ending, looks forward to a new struggle, to further agonies of introspection, to winter, to death and to a new victorious conclusion. The works are a perpetual cycle of struggle, death and rebirth. Each work looks both backwards and forwards, as in the work the happy ending acknowledges the pain that preceded it.

So wrote Maynard Solomon[3], one of Beethoven's great biographers, quoted in the programme booklet, and this is the meaning of the double ending presented by Zholdak.

For all these reasons, this production of Fidelio raises the anxieties of our world, and shows that Beethoven's Fidelio, with its heterogeneous, disordered libretto, so often altered or transformed, is far from being a ordinary Opera-Comique leading to a melodrama that ends in universal harmony. It is a work of anxiety, of threat, because the very existence of the black beyond where Florestan is shows the structural instability of the world. So perhaps the reserved reception from the audience in Amsterdam is also a refusal to see this obvious fact about theatre, which is intended as entertainment and therefore as illusion.


Musical aspects : music and staging

The debates on the scenic approach have rubbed off on the musical approach, and on the general orientations. Although the original dialogues have been replaced by Zholdak's text, the musical numbers are still there and take place more or less in order, with the dramaturgical problems that may be associated with them. For example, the first act ends with Leonore's Abscheulicher ! aria, which is a powerful finale for an act, no doubt because Zholdak's dramaturgical construction had a problem with the prisoners' chorus, which is proposed at the beginning of the second act, not in full view, but in the pit or in the wings. There's a connection problem here : the prisoners' chorus has a precise function in the original libretto, which is firstly to show that we're in a prison, something that could be forgotten for much of the first act, and secondly to show a dramatic shift towards the dark world of Pizarro.
This problem has not been solved and is down to the staging, which basically didn't really know what to do with the story board that replaced the libretto. For me, this is the only real flaw where the staging denies the music its presence, in one of the most emblematic pieces of the work. But it is indicative of a more general flaw in the production, which was less rigorous and controlled in the second act.

Others have criticised the insertion of the Funeral March from the Eroica at a moment of scene change : insofar as other stagings have introduced music by Beethoven (we mentioned Op.132 in the Bieito’s Munich production), and Mahler himself introduced the Leonore III Overture as a dramatic scansion of Act II, which some conductors take up and others refuse, the discussion is a little Byzantine insofar as it does not detract from the whole. But let's face it, if Zholdak's vision is fairly coherent in the first act, the second appears more disorganised, less constructed : the Leonore III Overture certainly appears, but more loosely, at the end, as a return to Beethoven after all the adventures. It is less convincing than in a traditional performance because it is clear that with Zholdak's option, the minister's intervention seems incongruous insofar as the resolution is Leonore and not the minister. Don Fernando cannot have the role of Deus ex machina that the original libretto reserved for him and the Leonore III overture loses its dramaturgical function to become almost illustrative.

It is therefore possible that the singers were a little bewildered by this approach and found it difficult to find their feet, what's more with a slightly reverberant open set that may also have had an effect on the projection and dilution of the voices in the auditorium.


The voices

Despite the problems mentioned above with the dramaturgy surrounding the prisoners' chorus, which is essentially in the pit, the voices of the two solo prisoners can be heard clearly, with two timbres that work well together (Stefan Kennedy and Peter Arink), very clearly projected.

Mark Kurmanbayev, the minister Don Fernando, has very little to sing because of the dramaturgical issues mentioned above, but his bass timbre is really attractive and marked, and his phrasing is beautiful.

Of the entire cast, the pairing of Marzelline (Anna El-Khashem) and Jaquino (Linard Vrielink) worked vocally, with Anna El-Khashem showing real poetry, beautiful vocal projection and impeccable diction. We've known her since she was in the company in Munich, and she has a clear, assertive voice that is always attentive to colour. Insofar as the staging does not offer them too much of a departure from their usual roles, we feel that she is very present, very much in tune, with great refinement and elegance. Linard Vrielink, Jaquino, we also know from his magnificent performance as Asle in Sleepless by Eötvös in Berlin and Geneva, and also in Berlin in Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, where, still a member of the local studio, he sang a very lively Junker Spärlich. On each occasion, we noted not only his remarkable stage presence, but also his well-defined singing, with beautiful phrasing and a strong concern for the weight of the words. We find these qualities again here, with clear language, perfectly pronounced words and a notable, if episodic, stage presence.

James Creswell as Rocco, whose aria Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben is omitted here (as in the version performed by Mahler in 1904), is a little pale on stage, his function dramaturgically reduced to the role of Pizarro's assistant ; the voice carries, but remains relatively uncoloured, and the character appears completely diluted, non-existent, as if he no longer had any function, just a tool. And this is obviously noticeable.

Pizarro (Nicholas Brownlee) between white angel and black angel

Nicholas Brownlee, who in the original film at the beginning of the performance is the strange taxi driver – we can understand why afterwards – sings Pizarro, i.e. the devil in this Mephistophelian production. On stage, he is stunning as the Karl Lagerfeld of the underworld, handling the snake, flames, light bulbs and angel wings with uncommon mastery, and really filling the stage ; this future Wotan in Tobias Kratzer's production of the Ring in Munich also has beautiful phrasing and a timbre that is not really black as we have heard here and there, but on the contrary velvety and quite refined. He is an elegant Pizarro, as Lagerfeld would have it… The voice is well projected, the diction impeccable and he pulls off the aria Ha ! Welch ein Augenblick which, although deleted by Mahler, is sung here with conviction (impossible to delete the great aria of Mephisto-Pizarro in such a Mephistophelean production). He is a singer attentive to the colour and intelligence of the text. And undoubtedly the most at ease of all in this vision of Beethoven's work. And it's no coincidence that this is the character Zholdak pays most attention to in his staging.

Eric Cutler loses out in this Fidelio. The role, though formidable, is limited in time, an aria (admittedly impossible), a beautiful duet, and a final ensemble. With Zholdak, he does not leave the stage and crosses the whole of the first act, angelic or fallen, constantly driven by Pizarro, crossing here and there the beloved wife. We know this fine singer, heard at Bayreuth and elsewhere in increasingly heavy roles. The hybrid nature of Florestan, a strong tenor but at the same time heir to a Mozartian Tito or Belmonte, but at the same time heralding grand opera tenors, or even Wagnerian voices, is a kind of squaring of a truly infernal circle, no pun intended. Today, Jonas Kaufmann has made a name for himself with an initial Gott in his aria that seems to come from the depths of sound, yesterday it was Ben Heppner, magnificent in his urgency, who was both Tito and Tristan, and the day before yesterday, Jon Vickers, who could do anything.
Eric Cutler's problem is first and foremost a lack of commitment in his interpretation, a lack of interiority that doesn't give this voice any real body. His Gott is uncontrolled, with no real line, and the aria is correct but lacking in embodiment or vibrancy, as if he didn't fit into Florestan, or at least that Florestan.

Jacquelyn Wagner (Leonore) on screen

Jacquelyn Wagner was no more convincing as Leonore. An acoustic effect ? Both their voices do not project well, and Jacquelyn Wagner's seems poorly projected, without the strength of conviction or inner rage that we hear in other interpreters of the role (her Abscheulicher !), although she is more committed than Cutler on stage, and composes a rather endearing character, but vocally she remains indifferent for my taste. She has undeniable technical qualities, in phrasing and delivery, but never transcended by colour or accents : she is never moving and leaves us on the outside in a production where she is constantly in the foreground. It's a paradox, but the performer is more present in the original films than on stage, without getting to the heart of the role or the bottom of our hearts. To be honest, she has never really convinced me (I remember her as Countess in Lotte de Beer's Nozze in Aix, where she was, however, stagey), and her Leonore confirms this impression of a mass-produced Leonore, far from scandalous, but without any singularity or vocal personality.

Even if the solo voices are a little contrasted and fall short of expectations in this work, the fact remains that the musical forces in Amsterdam guarantee an enviable level, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit, one of the best phalanges in Europe, if not the world.

And the chorus does not disappoint. Although, for the reasons given above, the Prisoners' Chorus was staged in the pit, as an "accompanist" in the same way as the orchestra, making this intervention not a dramaturgical key as in the original libretto, but a "background" element of sorts, it remains musically impeccable, expressive, with a clear and fully present phrasing ; we can only regret that this chorus, which likes to be on stage and perform, did not have the opportunity to do so on this evening.

As for the final chorus, it begins with a quartet of thanks to God taken up by the chorus, one of the most sublime musical moments, and ends with a chorus of rejoicing celebrating the victory of the wife who has freed the husband : The text thus closes the opera-comique celebrating Leonore and "marital love", but the music here goes beyond the anecdotal and celebrates much more than Florestan's liberation, but rather a kind of liberation in the absolute, which is why this finale has something sublime about it, even as it is presented, in its simplicity that contrasts with the profusion of the previous scenes, where the chorus and soloists with the curtain closed on the proscenium address the audience in a kind of celestial abstraction. And the chorus is exceptional here, even if its intervention is brief.

Once a year, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra descends into the pit of the opera house at the start of the Holland Festival, and it's always an event. No dross, a sound of diaphanous purity, unfailing reliability : it responds perfectly to the conductor's requests, especially in the final part, conceived by Zholdak as a return to Beethoven and combining the Leonore III overture and the final scene practically one after the other. The Leonore III Overture, a well-known orchestral piece often given as an encore in concerts, is a piece in which the orchestra displays its full range of colours, its sense of rhythm, its dynamics and its sense of drama : it is obviously a success, and whoever the conductor was, with an orchestra like this, it would have been.
But it's not the breathtaking enthusiasm we've heard on other occasions. The reason is that Andrés Oroczo-Estrada's conducting is precise, very attentive to supporting the singers' voices in the aforementioned acoustic conditions, well framed, without embellishment, with obvious care and application : it's clean, neat and without burrs, correct but without magic.

However, we have heard this orchestra otherwise carried away, otherwise involved, otherwise operatic, with Jansons, with Gatti for example.

Is this the effect of a production that shifts a certain number of habits ? One might think so, even if the major strictly musical parts, such as the overture or certain moments in the first act, do not match the dramatic force intended by the staging, creating a gulf between what we see and what we hear. There are, however, some very successful moments, such as the quartet in the first act (Jaquino, Leonore, Marzelline, Rocco), driven by the voices and the rather sublime visuals (see the Youtube excerpt below).

There are others that are more indifferent, which, without distilling boredom, remain passable and lacking in rough edges or character, as if the essential thing was to ensure that everything held together correctly and nothing more.

Admittedly, the general neutrality of the approach could reassure spectators who were frightened or lost by what they were seeing, but it in no way responded to the spirit of the production – to put it in Wagnerian terms, this was not a Gesamtkunstwerk.

So Amsterdam has dared to produce a Fidelio that is off the beaten track, for some no doubt off the beaten track. A production that could make history with a boldness that could be conceived of for a Festival that takes the wind out of its sails ; in this sense, this production is quite in keeping with the innovative spirit of the house. Andriy Zholdak has insisted on the very personal colour of his work in a sort of Fidelio it’s me already mentioned, but this personal colour with its tastes, its references, its outlook is also a reflection of our anxieties, our disorders, our splits, In this sense, this Fidelio is us, but we probably prefer to see the ordinary and comforting Fidelio, which says the same thing but more 'gently': a world in which the black part exists despite everything, above which we live and hope, as the first act tells us, in a dazed dance not on a volcano that can be extinguished, but on a black hole that devours us, with no escape. Faced with this prospect, it's best to close our eyes, as some spectators must have done when watching Zholdak's work.

[1] Victor Hugo, La Légende des siècles, II, Plein Ciel

[2] Bruce LaBruce in

[3] Maynard Solomon, Beethoven, Schirmer Trade Books

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