Less than the sum of its parts: Fidelio at the ROH
Royal Opera House
Balcony standing B70, £22
1 March 2020
This new production of Fidelio has, on paper, a lot going for it. Conducted by Antonio Pappano, starring two of the most sought-after voices today in Lise Davidsen and Jonas Kaufmann, and the Royal Opera’s (I think sole?) contribution to the Beethoven anniversary, this is a hot-ticket event, no doubt about it. And yet, as in the last Pappano/Kaufmann collaboration of Il forza del destino, the result, for me, does not add up. Even though I really, really like Fidelio.
That starry casting is part of the problem. Hearing Davidsen in the first act reminded me of my first John Tomlinson experience, as Gurnemanz at ENO. Then as I now, I had been blithely enjoying the preceding singing – here exquisitely tasteful work by Amanda Forsythe as Marzelline and Robin Tritschler as Jaquino, his musicality in particular to die for – when on comes a force of nature that completely transforms the aural landscape. Davidsen is SO LOUD it is not true. She is louder than her co-stars combined, she is louder than the orchestra. It feels there no place she could be and not be heard. She has an existential loudness. As in my first experience of her at the Wigmore but for different reasons, the loudness is not always pleasant: probably because of her remarkable youth, the loudness sometimes comes at the expense of complete accuracy. But if anyone needed any more evidence that this is the voice that will define her generation, Davidsen provides it in Fidelio.
Kaufmann is many things, I thought to myself at the interval (i.e., before his first appearance), but loud is not one of them. Beautiful, yes. Dramatically nuanced, yes. Musically intelligent, very much so. Loud, no. And accordingly this star couple’s eventual reunion does not enable Kaufmann’s strengths to shine. I was reminded of Forza, where he and Anna Netrebko spent barely any time together. Is this a tactical rep decision between Kaufmann and Pappano? It might well be wise, but as otherwise Florestan has just the one aria Fidelio might give the game away too much. In ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!’ Kaufmann certainly capitalises on the wonderful opportunities Beethoven gives, nourishing the long starting note with a breathtaking fragility and ache that was sublime. But that is one moment. With it came the now familiar finery of epic ticket prices, crashing websites, an audience of bigwigs, two philanthropists credited with supporting Kaufmann’s role and a grand ‘Fidelio celebration’. Even Kaufmann looked embarrassed. This was Davidsen’s show, but Kaufmann is still the commercial bait.
Tobias Kratzer’s new production caused me further confusion. The first half looks so similar to David McVicar’s prize Le nozze di Figaro for the Royal Opera that I almost wondered if Kratzer had been sent a DVD as part of instructions for how to avoid another Guillaume Tell incident. It’s all fine, I thought, and looks nice, and maybe this is what the people want – but is it not, well, a bit of a capitulation? I also worried over a piece of blocking where Marzelline discovers Leonore’s secret identity during one of her arias: this seemed a major intervention of something definitely not covered in the music for such a traditional production. So I confess my heart lifted as the curtain rose on the second act, revealing no dark prison at all but a brightly lit plastic rock with a Kaufmann chained to it and the chorus in modern funeral ware gathered round on chairs. ‘Ah ha’, I thought to myself, ‘something interesting is going on!’
But I’ll be damned if I can work it out. Massive, beautifully shot video of the chorus reacting to stuff are broadcast on the back wall, to… I don’t know. Help the audience know how to react? That can’t be it, but try as I might I can’t think what else it is for. Maybe it's to make us aware of the luxury of our surroundings and the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves. But if so it’s a very gentle, easily missed nudge. Otherwise, Kratzer continues with his intervention in Marzelline’s character: she apparently sounds the bugle, shoots Pizarro and leads the prisoners in an uprising. What a gal! And what weight does that carry when the whole opera is about Leonore’s heroism? I guess it’s to say that there are heroes everywhere, and that a true story is never about an individual. But again, that’s a guess with little corroborating evidence. Kratzer and his team were booed at the curtain call and even that I don’t understand (although to be fair I never understand booing). How could you feel strong enough to boo?
And lastly, I think Pappano might be my problem, too. As I say, I really, really like Fidelio. But this performance left me almost untouched. I have only a few specific criticisms. The chorus seem to have been encouraged to welly it in the second act and the result is impressive but harsh-sounding, quite unnecessary for this piece. The orchestra at a few points sounded strangely tentative, as though they weren’t quite sure where to come in. But otherwise everything seemed in place and well rehearsed, but with none of the accumulating musical weight that Fidelio usually amounts so magnificently. Maybe, for me, this is just not Pappano’s repertory.
In this interesting Bachtrack article Kratzer explains: ‘The first act is an historical melodrama about love and personal fulfillment in post-revolutionary times. The second act is a political essay about the responsibility of the individual: a timeless appeal for empathy! My task as a director is therefore not to “solve” a problem, but rather to make the special structure of this opera visible to the audience – and try to make what might be considered a weakness of the piece a strength of its own.’ So it was my mistake to try to resolve the two halves. Perhaps that would have felt a more natural thing to do if I’d been able to see the width of the stage; as it was I was missing the right wall.