Fidelio, Holland Park Opera, OHP, July 2010

Beethoven’s only opera is a plea for justice, an idealistic cri de coeur from a composer who originally wanted to dedicate his third symphony to his hero Napoleon, only to be vastly disappointed when the general declared himself emperor. In this story, Florestan has been secretly imprisoned for two years by Don Pizarro, simply because he had exposed him as a rascal. When Pizarro hears that the Minister of Justice will arrive the next day he decides to murder Florestan and bury him before the visit. That all goes vastly wrong owing to the intervention of Florestan’s wife Leonore, who has been working at the prison under the assumed name of Fidelio.

Florestan and Leonore, photo by Fritz Curzon

Yvonne Howard as Leonore/Fidelio started gently and built up power as the evening progressed, performing well in her role as a man. But what really brought fire to the evening was Tom Randle as Florestan. As soon as he opened his mouth to sing in Act II, we had some real emotion and his voice was a powerful and welcome addition to what had gone before in Act I. At the start of the opera, Nicky Spence had given a rather vicious portrayal of an immensely frustrated young prison warder, Jaquino, desperately wanting Sarah Redgwick as Marzelline, the daughter of Rocco the jailer. She, in love with Fidelio, sang well, more strongly in my view than Stephen Richardson as Rocco, who was engagingly human, but a little underpowered. Phillip Joll sang strongly as the corrupt prison governor Don Pizarro, but portrayed a rather insipid character, not helped by the production where the movements of the guards on his first entrance looked very contrived. The prisoners chorus in Act I was the high point of that Act — powerfully sung.

The prisoners, photo by Fritz Curzon

However, the production’s main weakness was in Act II. When Njabulo Madlala entered as the Minister, foreshadowed by two goons with shades, he had entirely the wrong body language for such a powerful man, behaving more like a police community support officer new to the beat. But what really made this 2003 production by Olivia Fuchs so unsatisfactory was the inconsistency of having microphones and photographers accompanying the Minister, showing an open society, whereas Pizarro can apparently imprison someone for merely personal reasons. Was there a coup? I think the story has been perverted, and if the essay in the programme that mentions Guantanamo Bay reflects the producer’s intentions then this is not the opera it’s supposed to be. Are Pizarro’s prisoners supposed to be terrorists? I think the original idea has been lost in this rather incoherent staging, where the Minister pretended to glug down red wine straight from the bottle, and the nasty prison warder who had beaten everyone with his stick handed round loaves of bread. At the end the audience booed Don Pizarro in true pantomime style.

Fortunately the City of London Sinfonia played well under Peter Robinson, giving Beethoven’s music the serious tone it deserves.

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