Calixto Bieito directs Beethoven's Fidelio at ENO
Helen Wallace reviews a thoughtful but flawed production of Beethoven's only opera
‘In this lifeless waste, nothing lives but me’.
Tenor Stuart Skelton could have been describing Bieito’s production as he broke into Florestan’s heart-rending aria at the beginning of Act II. We’d just been subjected to a full five minutes of ‘machine noise’ during which Rebecca Ringst’s vast tubular labyrinth was cantilevered on to its side, taking us into the dungeons. Tension sagged.
Living up to his iconoclastic reputation, Calixto Bieito had already thrown out the spoken libretto and replaced it with poetry by Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy. He offered a contemporary vision of citizens trapped in a psychological prison of their own making, minutely choreographed during the (long) Leonora No. 3 Overture.
Beethoven's main plot tells the story of Leonore, who, disguised as a prison guard called Fidelio, rescues her husband, Florestan, from prison. In Bieito's hands the comic, domestic plot surrounding Marzelline (the jailer's daughter) was all but obliterated when Jaquino raped her in the first act. Don Fernando (the excellent Roland Wood) arrived at the end not as liberator but the despotic Joker from Batman, scribbling ‘free’ on people with a marker pen before shooting Florestan. The concept was, in a nutshell: ‘There’ll never be a door.’ (Borges)
So what was the dead weight at the heart of the evening? It wasn’t in the singing: sorpano Sarah Tynan was an admirably ardent, focused Marzelline, soprano Emma Bell freshly impressive as Leonore, bass James Creswell a pungent Rocco while the heroic Skelton was born to sing Florestan. Conductor Edward Gardner gave a restrained but stylish account, drawing gritty texture, and elegant, distinctive solos from the orchestra.
The problem lay in Bieito’s idea of entrapment as a concept, rather than a drama. And Fidelio needs all the dramatic help it can get. The lack of any dynamic engagement between Leonore and Florestan jarred. When she gives him bread as Rocco’s assistant, he reveals he has a smart phone (unaccountably, he’d failed to phone a friend) which she snatches and caresses. After she throws acid in Pizarro’s face with hammy haste, they appear more thrilled to be reunited with their clothes than each other. Their happy duet became an excruciating dressing scene, boxer shorts, knickers and all. As they sang of their joy, they had eyes only for the flies and straps.
In fact, Bieito was delaying their moment of togetherness for his coup de theatre: musicians from the Heath Quartet descended à la Stockhausen in three cages over the stage playing a cut-down version of the slow movement from Op. 132 (pictured above). While this produced a mesmerising image (and no doubt an eye-watering bill) it was musically and dramatically redundant. If an interlude had been needed at that point, Beethoven would surely have written one.
Pacing wasn’t the only issue. Bieito’s challenging suggestion that freedom is an illusion, liberation randomly bestowed and then reversed, that we are all tyrannised by a system whose distorted values are hidden couldn’t be more topical, or more urgent. But it jarred with Beethoven’s sublime final hymn: in the blinding euphoria of C major hope for humanity lives on. And it outshone a thoughtful but flawed production, greeted with indignant booing from some quarters.
Fidelio is on at ENO until 17 October