Despite a somewhat fragmented production, and while lacking the magic of live theatre, the beauty and spirit of Beethoven’s great opera come across clearly in this performance.
Opera North live-streamers gathered together (albeit separately) once again on Saturday 12 December for a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. This performance, rather than being a fully-staged opera, was a ‘concert staging’ – meaning more or less no scenery and little in the way of costumes. The performance was also a ‘reduction’ of Beethoven’s piece in more ways than one.
As always, the singing and playing were as good as flawless to my ear. It was good to see Opera North working with the important Mark Wigglesworth for the first time, who conducted, and who seemed to get on well with the orchestra. Each singer brought a wonderful sound to the proceedings. I really cannot pick out favourites from such a strong cast, so kudos to all: Rachel Nicholls (Leonore-Fidelio), Toby Spence (Florestan), Oliver Johnston (Jaquino), Fflur Wyn (Marzelline), Brindley Sherratt (Rocco), Robert Hayward (Don Pizarro), and Matthew Stiff (Don Fernando, narrator), and finally to Stuart Laing and James Davies (1 and 2 Prisoners) and the Chorus of Opera North.
One of the important ‘reductions’ in this production was in the orchestral writing, which was prepared by Francis Griffin. He too deserves a ‘bravo’ for his sensitive handling of the rather daunting task of altering Beethoven’s orchestration, since the sound did not feel ‘reduced’ at all: throughout the evening, the textures and sonorities were rich and full. I would be most nervous about ‘reducing’ Beethoven, so well done to him for doing it. The efforts of arranger and performers combined, the beauty and genius of Beethoven’s writing came clearly across. One has also, of course, to doff the cap to those running the electronic side of the sound, which sounded beautiful – much better than on some live-streams!
All long-term Opera North fans will know that the company is more than capable of excellent ‘concert stagings’, such as their great Wagner Ring cycle, Verdi’s Aïda, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle productions in recent years. These are often assisted by on-screen projections, which are meant pleasantly to distract you from the rather bare visuals of the stage. While I am not the greatest fan of the projections, here I missed their presence: what goes on on stage did feel very bare, and the lacklustre costumes didn’t help this either. The lighting works well enough to highlight the singers in sometimes expressive ways, but, as I said, there’s little in the way of sets for the lighting to interact with.
This only took me a bit out of the story, but it is connected to a more persistent problem – the only one which bothered me in the production, really. Much of the opera had been cut down by David Pountney so that there were spoken ‘narrations’ between, as it were, separate musical pieces. For me, for my other half, and her cat (we watched together), this was rather like switching between reading a novel and watching a play, and it served more to disorient than help the listener, I found. Huge parts of the story fly past in seconds, and then one finds oneself in a soaring, powerful aria about a situation one knows nothing about!
I would have preferred the original ‘Singspiel‘ format, where you have spoken dialogue between characters interpolated with arias – much like a musical. I must say, the ‘reduced’ version, at an hour and forty-five minutes is barely shorter than most ‘full’ productions which one can find. As a result of this reduction, the piece as a whole felt more like “opera excerpts” than an organically developing drama. As a piece of drama, then, it becomes a bit of a muddle; thankfully, as pure music, it remains stunningly beautiful. I hasten to add that the narrator himself (Matthew Stiff) is a good speaker and actor, bringing an engaging, Orson-Welles-ian presence to proceedings, and when he sings the part of the King’s Minister towards the end of the opera, we learn that he offers a rich voice, too.
The concert staging also takes away drama, because no one moves, even though their dialogue implies that they do. The worst moment of this is when Leonore ‘jumps’ (in the script) in between the murderous, dagger-wielding Pizzaro and her husband, saying “Get back!”. But there is no movement! It’s even worse than the moment slightly earlier when Leonore and Rocco discuss their collaboration on the opening of a prison door – motionlessly.
As always with Opera North, the programme is a treasure-trove full of fascinating historical context. And, as always, there are two essays; but it is a bit strange that both this time are by Stuart Leeks – good writer on the subject though he is – and that the two essays do rather overlap in what they mention. Why not two different writers and perspectives, or why not one slightly longer (but still short) essay by Leeks?
This production chose to do an hour and forty-five minutes of music with no interval. I would have preferred a more full-length opera with an interval, and can’t really see the sense in doing it the way they did. There were a few hiccoughs in the ‘streaming’ of the live-stream; but these were no great problem.
Ultimately, although it was broken up by weird and jarring cuts, this production gave more than a glimpse of the greatness of Beethoven’s writing, and won at least one new fan of this opera. Would that he had written more than one – but very impressive that he mastered the genre so profoundly on his first and only attempt! Thanks to Opera North and everyone involved for managing this challenging production in unfavourable circumstances. I still haven’t found a live-stream – by Opera North or anyone else – that I preferred to the magic of being in the theatre itself, so let’s hope we get on well with that vaccine!
At the time of writing, Fidelio can be streamed for another few days. On 17 December, Opera North will stream their Cinderella and a beautiful animation of the third act of Puccini’s La Bohème. I have seen a preview of the latter and would highly recommend it.
Photographs provided by Opera North. Feature image shows Oliver Johnston as Jaquino, Rachel Nicholls as Leonore, Brindley Sherratt as Rocco and Fflur Wyn as Marzelline.
Credit for photography: Richard H Smith.