REVIEW: Fidelio at Longborough Festival Opera

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Elizabeth Atherton, as Leonore/Fidelio at Longborough.

Fidelio, Longborough Festival Opera, Sunday, 2nd July

ONE of the interesting things about any production of Fidelio — Beethoven’s only opera — is that it seems to generate as much debate about how it is staged as about the quality of the music and the singing.

The five performances at Longborough that finished their run last Sunday, 2nd July, were no exception.

Director, Orpha Phelan, and designer, Madeleine Boyd, have faced a barrage of critical flak for their futuristic conceptualisation of this music drama, which, in a nutshell, tells the story of how a woman’s love and courage succeeds in releasing her jailed husband from the hell-hole of a dungeon in which he’s been held captive for two years by a corrupt prison governor.

The problem with Fidelio is that the whole sequence of events is set in the drab and doom-laden confines of a prison, and Ms Phelan and Ms Boyd have tried to update it from its 18th century origins by using a variety of concoctions, including a device that looked like a big stove, to indicate that the prisoners were being held captive by drugs rather than prison bars. (This does not apply to Florestan, the husband, whose freedom is being plotted by his loving wife; he is held in chains in solitary confinement while being systematically starved in advance of his proposed execution.)

Whatever methods Ms Phelan and Ms Boyd have used to illustrate their interpretation of Fidelio, the fact remains that this is an opera about the triumph of good — and love — over evil and the conquest of oppression, in whatever form it takes.

The improbability of a woman (the wife Leonore) succeeding in her scheme disguised as a man (Fidelio), and remaining undetected, in a prison of all places — while at the same time attracting the amorous designs of another woman — is not really the point.

This drama is all about ideas in the Age of Revolution and about freedom of expression until the end of time. And it is hardly surprising that in writing an opera Beethoven (1770-1827) chose this as his text.

In Beethoven’s version of the story we learn that Florestan has been imprisoned because he is planning to expose the crimes and corruption of the prison governor, Don Pizarro. In the Phelan/Boyd version, Pizarro is given an additional reason for imprisoning Florestan — Florestan shoots him and cripples him, with the result that Pizarro ends up in a wheelchair. (This is controversially intended to make even Pizarro seem a victim, that everyone is flawed and no-one is 100 per cent evil. But that, as you might say, is not actually in the script…)

Another device that has aroused some criticism was the use of English dialogue in contrast to the German, which was being sung. Sparing though the dialogue was, it was slightly jarring and out of place, and for some, especially the hard of hearing, should have had its own set of surtitles!

Directorial issues apart, the orchestral performance for this production, under the baton of Gad Kodash, was tremendous. Among the singers, the soprano, Elizabeth Atherton, as Leonore/Fidelio emerged as the real star of the show with a rich timbre that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Also superb was the bass, John Paul Huckle, as the jailer Rocco.

Special mention should be made, too, of the chorus, whose rendition of the famous prisoners’ ode to freedom was exceptionally moving.

Other parts were played by the baritone, Simon Thorpe (Pizarro), the tenor, Adrian Dwyer (Florestan) and soprano, Lucy Hall, bass, Timothy Dawkins, and tenor, Sam Furness.

At the end of the day this was a great triumph for music — as it should be.

The next production at Longborough is The Magic Flute, which runs from 13th to 22nd July. find out more at lfo.org.uk