English National Opera
As eight figures drag themselves out of the orchestra pit into the vast towering set, it looks like we're in for an exciting interpretation of Beethoven's Fidelio.
Calixto Bieito's Fidelio is an arresting spectacle which, combined with a stellar cast, could be a winning combination. Unfortunately a mixture of limpid acting from most and turgid direction leaves the audience confused and underwhelmed.
In post-apocalyptic style, the stage is bathed in a green glow, the action taking place on a vertical geometric scaffold prison. The walls are made of perspex and fluorescent light tubes edge the bars.
The cast run around set designer Rebecca Ringst's four storey playground, before a prisoner and the gaoler's daughter Marzelline (Sarah Tynan) collide in one of the cubes. Their frantic duet whilst he attempts to rape her is the first of many poorly fought struggles. Throughout the whole opera, no one fights with any resistance, which makes the static staging even less energetic.
With sumptuous singing from most and excellent diction, it's the two sopranos that stand out. Sweet, silvery-voiced Tynan succeeds in singing whilst climbing down a ladder above a ten foot drop. Leonore (Emma Bell) is disguised as Fidelio and, searching for her husband Florestan (Bryan Register), she has an glowing warmth to her tone which, coupled with fiery coloratura, is a spellbinding combination.
Far less successful is Philip Horst (Don Pizarro) Who struggles to sing anything in his lower range, and as top dog ineffectually threatens with his un-intimidating body language. He goes on to slash his arms in a masochistic act of passion, done so blithely that the knife may as well be a feather.
The first act sets up the desperate search for Florestan, with Leonore singing long passionate arias of her desperation and handing out photos of him to all the prisoners. He has been sentenced to death and is currently starving away in the dungeons, which are created by an impressive revolution of the set concocting cells to lock in Florestan.
When Leonore finally succeeds in overcoming the gaolers and freeing her husband, there is a long love duet proclaiming how wonderful it is to have each other back in their embrace. This whole piece is sung with very little affection between the pair and certainly no physical contact, instead proceeding to change clothes onstage.
Similarly, when the absurdly period dressed king arrives and pardons Florestan but also shoots at him, there is no reaction from Bell at the sight of her husband collapsing before her eyes.
Fidelio is a difficult opera at the best of times as Beethoven wrote extended arias amongst instrumental sections which are tricky to navigate onstage. Bieito highlights the beauty of the music, and the instrumentalists in lowered cages play a heart-wrenching passage in act two.
However the fine singing and dramatic set cannot make up for the lack of drama elsewhere.
Reviewer: Louise Lewis