Opera, but not as we know it, Jim

Beam me up, Ludwig:  Marzelline, Rocco, Leonora, Florestan, Don Fernando and Jaquino. Picture:s: Bertrand Stofleth

Fidelio

Opéra de Lyon

Edinburgh International Festival

**

American Director Gary Hill had a ‘big idea’ when preparing to stage Beethoven’s Fidelio for Opéra de Lyon in France’s second city. It gained some celebrity, and controversial productions being de rigueur at the current Edinburgh Festival, it found its way to the Festival Theatre in Scotland’s elegant capital for the 2013 festival. 

Hill’s notion for staging had perhaps two main strands. The first was to borrow some ideas – of look, design, context, even dialogue – from the 1956 Harry Martinson science fiction near-disaster film Aniara (to which allusions, pretty irrelevant ones, are made in the oft-altered text); like them, we are, it seems, on a collision course.

The second was, consistently, actually to set it in space, aboard a Star Trek-like spacecraft, kit everyone out in appropriate (if sometimes baffling) gear and blast the audience with galactic images of every possible kind, some intelligible, some very much not so, but all – it must be said – troublingly beautiful. 

When you decide to go all-out for what is called a ‘concept’ production – concept opera is still all the rage in Germany, in particular - there may be a price to be paid.

Here, in this rather humbled, and humbling, story of the Napoleonic era when jackbooted upstart ideologues, some wielding real power (like Beethoven’s Don Pizarro), had the right of life and death over those they seized and held, we need to stay with the touching story. 

That story is above all of a (possibly young) wife who ferrets out her politically arrested husband’s whereabouts, and by the skin of her teeth saves him (it would have been easy for Beethoven’s, and his predecessors like Paer’s, librettist to do a Puccini and actually, à la Tosca, execute the rebel Florestan – i.e. the fine Austrian baritone Nikolai Schukoff - despite all)  

The trouble with the concept or ‘big wheeze’ here – a bit like the constant infusion of scurrilous and perennially unnecessary sex, cunnilingus, dildos, you name it, into the productions of Calixto Bieito, who effectively sank English National Opera’s previous regime with the critical flop of his dramatic obsessions – is that it gets in the way of the opera. 

Fidelio, it’s true, is not the most, amazing of opera libretti. But the line is clear: arrest, disguise, rescue - the wife, Leonora (here the variable, originally Swedish Erika Sunnegårdh) cross-dresses as a young lad and gets a holiday job at the local prison, where her husband is restrained under high security conditions (cue Guantanamo Bay in some productions). ‘Rescue operas’ were actually rather in fashion at that time, and continued to be so, not least on the Paris stage. 

 Andrew Schroeder as Don Fernando

The first part of the opera is kind of preliminaries. Like Shakespeare’s Viola, Leonora makes a pretty boy and young Marzelline (the wonderful young Cardiff Singer of the World winner Valentina Naforniţă, from intensely musical Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Russia) is taken with the lad. But Leonora-Fidelio (‘Faithful’) has other ideas, and after enraging the girl’s fiancé Jaquino (a presentable performance from much-travelled German tenor Christian Baumgärtel), descends into this emporium of agony’s bowels with her affable boss. 

He is the honest and un-murderous chief gaoler Rocco (a fabulous performance – best of them all for me – from Schukoff’s fellow-Austrian Michael Eder: a wonderfully lucid bass whom, pace some of my fellow critics, I’d happily travel to hear again (rampant Osmin in Il Seraglio, Pogner in Meistersinger, a slender-looking Falstaff and an awesome Kaspar, the stop-at-nothing villain in Weber’s shivery Der Freischütz). 

There you have it in a nutshell. Those spaceships, star signs, floating asteroids, galaxies - and mystery names - came later. In this production, in fact. 

Challenged with regard to my (to a degree) enthusiasm for this weird experience, I have had to answer that I found I could approach this staging schizophrenically.  

I could wonder, enthralled, not just at the kaleidoscopic decorousness of Hill’s imagined universe, played out in whites and yellows and just occasionally (the Prisoners’ Chorus, when for a second all seemed to blossom) florid multicolour, while keeping it quite separate from the early 19th century tragicomedy that was unfolding. I could be quietly irritated that half the cast wore ridiculous white-cream Star Wars outfits, and whistled around on kind of stand-on scooters, reducing them, in terms of moves and gestures, to plastic nonentities; above all I could admire the genius of the technicians who made Hill’s galactic vision possible in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre; and still hive off part of my mind unperturbed for the main action. 

I was impressed, in a way, that Schukoff’s Florestan sleeps and then wakes in a kind of time tunnel which, as a way of evoking deep isolation, was really rather good; and certainly that when he cries out, there was enough of the legendary Jon Vickers in Schukoff’s voice to draw me in to his grief. The prisoner, and the prison, were perhaps the best beneficiaries of Hill’s conceit: the immensity of space is a pretty neat way of suggesting the total separation, and the feeling that imprisonment will be for eternity, almost certainly for life, so central to Fidelio. OK so far, a big plus. 

But there was one of ours in there too: the Midlands’ own international bass-baritone, Pavlo Hunka, who grew up in Coventry, is now acclaimed worldwide in Wagner and Berg and indeed Beethoven, and is one of the finest character voices and character singers on the world stage today. That’s not just me. Ask Daniel Barenboim, ask Zubin Mehta, ask WNO, ENO and Bregenz Festival’s Director of Productions, David Pountney.  

Hunka is a big fellow – a hunk of a man in fact; he towers above me when I interview him and he did much the same at the age of 15. He has world-class lungs, and a world-class way of using them.

Pizarro, sung by Pavlo Hunka, Rocco (Michael Eder), Marzelline (Valentina Naforniţă) and  Leonora (Erika Sunnegårdh)

His present project – incredibly important – is committing to record all the Ukrainian composers and song repertoire that was banned under not just the Communists, but the later Czars. Anything but allow Ukrainian independence aspirations to peep through (today’s political reversal is one in the eye for two centuries of Russian history).  

But you will as easily find him singing Bluebeard, or Wozzeck, or the Flying Dutchman, or Wotan. Big name, big bloke. 

Except that here he wasn’t. Hill’s idea in dressing Hunka’s Pizarro in a kind of Japanese – not Sumo, probably not transvestite, but somehow Noh-Play black attire (black – very sinister; except that Florestan wears black, and so does Marzelline, a kind of spotted black: are to we read things in here? Is the gaoler’s teen daughter actually an escaped Queen of the Night?) – is perhaps to make him look BIG (as the terrific Keel Watson did in Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company production).  

But when everyone else was hoist up 18-26 inches on a kind of personal trolleybus, and it turns out that Pizarro’s costume means he can’t safely or sensibly be up on wheels himself, the result was that Hunka got reduced to a diminutive ditherer cum fat dwarf. Perhaps, Alberich-like? That might do, but it didn’t. 

Hunka’s was not the only voice one felt dwindled because of the front curtain drop so frequently in the way (so that distracting front projections – albeit teasing and entertaining and mind-boggling ones – could be played out in mid scene). 

Others suffered too, perhaps most notably Sunnegårdh’s Leonora, whose earlier scenes seemed iffy, but who blossomed in the great soliloquy and his/her double aria ‘Come hope, I follow’). The lighting (Marco Filibeck) did not help either, because though effective in places, he was advised to maintain darkness at times where it did not suit.  

When Hunka’s what should be awesome Pizarro keeps emerging from or wafting in or out of darkness, we seem to have got our wires crossed. You can’t have darkness as Florestan’s metier and ambit (cut-offness), and Pizarro’s as well (wickedness).  

Besides, Hunka doesn’t need darkness to do wickedness; he can manage it perfectly well in full blazing light, as he showed as Weber’s mesmerising villain Lysiart in Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Euryanthe, a role he shared with another former Midlands boy, Coventry Cathedral chorister Stephen Gadd. Hunka has done Barak in Strauss’s monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten. He is now surely ready for Boris Godunov, as any casting director reading this should see.  

The corollary of all this is that dramatically we seem to have rather shuffled our way through this Gallic Fidelio. Except that we didn’t – musically, that is. 

In the pit was one of the wonders of European opera conducting at this time (Budapest’s János Kovács is another, but let that rest for the present): Lyon’s musical supremo Kazushi Ono still conducts regularly in his native Japan and was for six years the stupendously successful Music Director of Opera La Monnaie, the main company in Brussels (2002-7: lucky Chris Patten and Peter Mandelson).

 Leonora, sung by Erika Sunnegårdh, Rocco (Michael Eder), Marzelline (Valentina Naforniţă)

Not an early music specialist, he is a master at 19th and 20th century Romantic repertoire: Verdi, Wagner, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and much else.  

But what Ono brings to this score is a cleanness, and a clear motivation in his players to provide it, that is on a par with, say, Ádám Fischer, the Hungarian Haydn and classical period specialist. We did not think we were hearing things in Ono’s Lyons orchestra: we heard them. And even if that front gauze got in the way of some of the singing, those two quartets (‘Es ist mir wunderbar’ and the later one where Pizarro realises he is scuppered) worked a treat as far as the orchestra was concerned. Not a case of just the woodwind, brass, or just the strings. That Boulez-like clarity beamed through all sections. 

When you have conducting and orchestral playing of this kind, it’s possible to snooze through the wacky visuals; or, as I said, to wonder at the starry projections (some constellation-like stick-men evoking imprisoned men waking and haltingly moving – an incredibly affecting detail - stick in the mind) but stay with the earthbound plot. Rocco, like Shakespeare’s nobler gaolers – Brakenbury (Richard III) or Hubert (King John) must have had to endure a similar kind of schizophrenia-like attitude, dealing with or fending off daily execution orders. Perhaps we should regard Hill’s imposition as just part of life’s rich pattern. No reason he shouldn’t try, even if try and fail. 

It’s not often that Don Fernando, the big-wig late arrival, deserves one of the biggest accolades of the evening. But – as with teen dream Alexander Vlahos’s Malcolm in Kenneth Branagh’s Manchester Macbeth (reviewed on these pages), here was a bit part who just shone out.  

Young Missouri-born Andrew Schroeder sang the role – yes, he too had silly gear on – and I thought he was a joy: the other one who, like Eder’s Rocco, cut through with clarity. Beginning to be sought after, he has sung the rounds – for Lyon earlier, in Toulouse, Madrid, and as Gluck’s Orestes for WNO in Cardiff and Birmingham; and indeed as King Arthur (title role in Chausson’s rare masterpiece) when it was heard at the Edinburgh Festival. Paris and Venice have claimed him; and he has returned to his native New York. Fernando, along with Fidelio, is the real new era figure, the deus ex machina: he halts the barbarism. But I thought Schroeder was a bit of a deus ex machina, vocally and visually, himself.  

Roderic Dunnett 

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