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Fidelio

Ludwig van Beethoven
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Released

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Lise Davidsen (Leonora/Fidelio) and Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco) Credit: Bill Cooper, ROH
Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline), Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco) and Lise Davidsen (Leonora/Fidelio) Credit: Bill Cooper, ROH
Lise Davidsen (Leonora/Fidelio) and David Butt Philip (Florestan) Credit: Bill Cooper, ROH

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." That widely-misquoted principle, which apparently Edmund Burke never said, could stand above this stirring, much adapted production by Tobias Kratzer.

The first half is set in Revolutionary France, the nature of which is clear from one of the sans-cullotes bringing a basketful of heads for grieving widows to identify. Leonora, realising she cannot as a woman gain admittance to the prison holding her husband Florestan, dons male costume as ‘Fidelio’ to win employment there as a warder.

Thereafter, Kratzer very much sets his own interpretation on the piece. Additional dialogue, written by dramaturg Bettina Bartz, refers to the Republic and republican causes. Prison governor Rocco is presented in a much more unforgiving light than is usually the case, showing little sympathy for his most cruelly treated inmate. And his daughter Marzelline shows signs of being physically mistreated.

We are invited to judge all this—although not as evident on DVD as it was in the opera house—by the projection of Liberté Égalité Fraternité on the safety curtain, then by the action being presented mise en scene, with a false, Brechtian proscenium, distancing the audience from the stage.

The modernist approach is taken further in a re-evaluation of the relationship between Amanda Forsythe’s Marzelline and Leonora, as the former tries to get the latter in bed, but when observing her would-be lover partly undress, realises she is female, and does not seem unduly perturbed.

Come the interval, and there is a complete style shift. The chorus reappears as observers in 20th century dress, reacting to Fidelio’s emotions, at first turning their backs on her appeals, intervening only at the end to effect happy liberation.

I find the interpretation entirely convincing, justice delivered not ex machina or via intervention by a higher, princely power, but through human resolve.

Not all critics were so appreciative of the production, but nearly all hailed a superb performance by Lise Davidsen in the title role. She has the breath control for those long phrases, never faltering between the chesty tones of the manly Fidelio and the anguished higher-pitched appeals of Florestan’s wife. She combines the dramatic presence of a skilled stage actress with the studied precision of a recitalist in the Lieder-like "Abscheulicher".

Forsythe cleverly realises the ambiguous role of Marzelline, a woman accustomed to the humiliations of prison servitude, while George Zeppenfeld is the compliant Yes-man, ready to sacrifice his daughter. Their voices rang with conviction.

As Florestan, David Butt Philip is no Jonas Kaufmann, for whom he was a late replacement through the latter’s indisposition—and his liberation cry is a faint echo of the stunning effect achieved by Michael Spyres in the current Opera Comique production—but his representation of a long-held captive on the verge of complete breakdown was convincing and effective.

Only Simon Neal as Don Pizarro seemed to lack the fire of villainous cruelty demanded of a man capable of incarcerating and murdering his enemy Florestan. He kills a canary for fun, for goodness sake! If nothing else, surely that should provoke the good men to action.

Reviewer: Colin Davison