Beethoven: Fidelio


Festspielhaus Baden-Baden , 9 May 2008 3 stars

Fidelio at Baden-Baden

Only a conductor of great stature and integrity can afford to turn the essence of Beethoven's obsessional idealism in Fidelio into remorseless cruelty and brutality.

The piece has often been hijacked by evil and despotic governments to serve as a fig leaf.

Klemperer, long before old age and frailty reduced him to an obstinate stasis, accepted an invitation by one of the most despicable dictators of the twentieth century, Rakosi, to become the director of the Opera in Budapest; he conducted many performances of Fidelio in a building only a few steps away from the dreaded Headquarters of the Communist version of the Gestapo, where not hundreds but thousands of innocent victims were prepared for their show trials, or succumbed to their unspeakable suffering.

It could be taken for granted that Claudio Abbado would offer a performance of supreme beauty and passion and a new yardstick by which to judge other Fidelios. Nearing his seventy-fifth birthday, he must have brooded over every bar of the work throughout his long career, before he decided to crown his life's work. He relentlessly hurls forward the music to a frenetic catharsis. His marvellously-spun lyrical phrases appear to breathe and sound like a silvery haze in the midst of the brooding darkness. He dispenses with vibrato or excessive sentimentality. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, one of Abbado's favourite ensembles, reduced in size, is totally at home in the treasure-trove of that marvellous score. In the domestic and lyrical scenes Abbado manages to lighten Beethoven's occasional ponderousness into Mozartian wit, and yet he paints the prison scenes in colours that make one share in the anguish and fury of the drama.

Fidelio at Baden-BadenThe dedication of a devoted cast, even if not matching the standards in the pit, and their instant response to every flickering spark in Abbado's imagination, the highly experienced Schoenberg Chorus and the Madrid chorus in full strength, pitiful at their most despondent and almost hysterically exuberant at their joyful outbursts, forced one reluctantly to come to terms with Chris Kraus's first effort in directing opera. Abbado's chosen producer, Kraus is said to have already demonstrated sensitive talent in an award-winning film on an intensely musical plot. This being his first opera production, and never even having heard an opera before, he fell in the trap of aping the Regietheater's cliché-ridden armoury, including flickering back projection and subliminal laser spotlights, all supposed to have some deep meaning. His concept totally denies the gentle and compassionate spirit that moved Beethoven. He was obviously inspired by Abbado himself, who has formed his own, darkly pessimistic view of mankind's seeming inability to allow itself to be ruled by compassion.

To transfer the action to the France of the Revolution is an arguable, albeit weak, idea. To carry it out on the stage by no other means save by a few three-cornered hats put on the gendarmes pushing around the crowd shows a total lack of substance in the concept. The ever-looming presence of a full-scale guillotine, constantly dominating the stage even in the domesticity of the first scene, is crude and fatuous. The guillotine is lovingly polished and even decorated with a bunch of flowers by Marzelline, and even Fidelio helps Rocco to tie a victim to its bench in what seems to be a mock execution, just for casual entertainment. The prisoners, allowed to leave their ranks backstage and moving on centre-stage, do this in virtually total darkness, while singing out their hearts about how wonderful it is to breathe fresh air and how sad it will be to leave again the warming rays of sunshine. The many chances to make this a touching scene are totally lost on the dark stage. This incongruity and lack of respect shown for the text characterises the entire range of the libretto. Even the radically shortened spoken dialogue, poorly and often hardly audibly rendered, shows up glaring absurdities.

Fidelio at Baden-BadenThe libretto shows clearly that Beethoven was no revolutionary. He fully accepted the authority of the Emperor, but his compassion for the innocently persecuted reached boiling point by the fate of the innumerable victims of the French Revolution's descent into terror. The bigoted censor of the State would have never allowed Fidelio to be produced, if this had not been the case. The librettist could even claim that the Empress was impressed by the story. Beethoven liked to pretend that he came from a noble background. His entire existence, socially and financially, was built upon his ingratiating himself with the Court and the highest circles of the aristocracy. The very libretto Schikaneder dug out for a commission for Beethoven, and which eventually became the basis of Fidelio's libretto, was written by a royalist, who claimed to have been able to save an innocent aristocratic victim from the guillotine during the terror of the Revolution.

As for the cast, although they have been handpicked, coached and inspired by Abbado, and are all well established singers on the international circuit, I did not feel that they were much above the standards one expects from a respectable provincial house in Europe. Anja Kampe, already a renowned dramatic soprano, singing most of the major roles in leading houses, failed to approach the heights one remembers from Gundula Janowitz , Birgit Nilsson or Sena Jurinac, to name only a few memorable Leonores. She had some trouble with her high register and her coloratura, already made less formidable in the 1814 version, often went out of steam. Julia Kleiter, after lovingly polishing the Guillotine, was made to stand within the scone of a dazzling spotlight, more as Sophie Faninal, or Micaela, than the rough daughter of an even rougher prison guard. She has a captivating and well used soprano, and was a good match for Anja Kampe's more dramatic tonecolour.

Giorgio Surian was neither in appearance, nor stature up to the role of Rocco. For all the merits he has as a singer in the light bass-baritone range, he is too young in experience and light in voice and gravitas to cope with an old and worn, yet powerful figure. The character of Rocco is given an odd twist by Kraus, because in the dungeon scene he protects Pizarro, pushes Florestan to the ground and tries to restrain Leonore; yet only a minute later, he turns on Pizarro with physical violence.

Fidelio at Baden-BadenThe effect of the two clarion trumpet calls, which have never failed to create an overwhelming effect in thousands of performances, went for nothing here. The chorus was sitting at the back of the stage in serrated ranks virtually throughout the performance. Its constant presence, even witnessing the domestic activities of the first scenes, may have some hidden meaning, but I fail to have discovered what that was.
Activities such as kneeling or lying on the floor, falling and stumbling or just standing around waiting for their turn were often demanded of them by the stage directions. In the ensembles the cast was often just lined up, facing the audience to deliver their parts without any effort by the director to differentiate their widely contrasting feelings!

Albert Dohmen was an experienced Pizarro, but with only venom and cruelty focussed in his delivery, without much caring for the beautiful singing that the role demands. As he is an experienced Wotan, one might have expected more than just rough fury and sometimes screeched lines. He was made to enter the scene sitting in a wheelchair, pushed in by an attendant and surrounded by a semicircle of eight more attendants carrying oversize chandeliers. This looked impressive but has nothing to do with Fidelio. In his scene with Rocco, he leaves his wheelchair and stumbles around leaning on crutches, and when he is fighting Rocco – a, to me, new feature in this role – he falls to the floor. The eight attendants rush forward and form a tight semicircle of chandeliers. While he is rolled out on his wheelchair, Rocco is left crouching on the floor. The whole idea of making Pizarro a deformed invalid robs the role of its dignity. Pizarro and Florestan are two grandees, who ought to be of equal social standing and in the flower of their manhood.

Fidelio at Baden-BadenFlorestan was to be sung originally by Jonas Kaufmann, but in the end Clifton Forbis took the role. He has a loud voice, with steely heights, and he has established a reputation in virtually all the major heroic tenor roles. Florestan needs a tenor, combining the virtues of Wagnerian power with the gentle bel canto legato of a Belmonte, and also needs a dignity and pride that can stand up, even in adversity, to Pizarro. This Florestan lacked all these requisites. He was not helped by having to sing his testing aria, without being able to warm up, in total darkness, so that it was not possible even to guess where he was located on the stage. A serious wobble in the middle range, roughly pushing up to forced and unlovely heights, and a general inability to render anguished passion and sublime faith in love and compassion, forced one to remember great Florestans – Jon Vickers in the first instance – and make mental comparisons.

Then, Rocco and Fidelio were to enter, and Chris Kraus seems to have taken out a leaf of the obsessional ladder-laden ROH Ring and made them, perilously and still in total darkness only lit by occasional subliminal sparks flickering on the outlines of the ladder, climb down from the top of the stage – a good twenty metres. One might have expected that they would carry a light to enable them to dig a grave, but all they had was a tiny electric candle, left far away from where Florestan was discovered to lie. This mixture of realism and looking for subtleties where none were to be found was most irritating. How Pizarro, usually sitting in his wheelchair, managed to enter the scene, which others could reach only by scaling a twenty-metre-tall ladder, is one of the questions that remain unanswered in this production. Florestan's impassioned belief in the essential goodness of human nature and his most sublime feelings of love and hope are lost in the totally underlit dungeon of Chris Kraus, even if Abbado builds up in the pit a parallel world of almost manifest tensions and emotions.

Hardly is Florestan freed from his shackles than he is supposed to take over the reins of the prison from Pizarro. Pizarro, shackled by Jaquino, is dragged to the guillotine, but in the chaotic scene one does not know who orders his execution, as Florestan and Leonore merrily push each other around in Pizarro's vacated wheelchair and dance around the stage like intoxicated youths. And this, in a scene that was composed as the glorification of virtue and the dignity of compassionate behaviour.

The crowd is again roughly manhandled by the same gendarmerie that controlled the prisoners before. The joyful exuberance turns somehow into a hysteric shamble and the curtain falls on a scene of chaotic desolation, with the crowd being pushed towards the guillotine, which suddenly sprouts four mini-guillotines, attended by gendarmes standing to attention, silhouetted against the projection of an oversize, dazzling yellow circle on the backcloth. With the blade crashing down on Pizarro, the lights go out and only the protagonists appear before a backdrop, still so badly lit that expressions and gestures can hardy be interpreted, to end the opera, facing the audience in a scene reminding one of the closing minutes of Don Giovanni. No cheering crowd here, no benevolent Minister solemnly reuniting Florestan and Fidelio. For some reason, that must be clear only to Kraus, the Minister is not a Minister but a portly Cardinal, dressed in the usual cardinal outfit, with the people kneeling as he passes them.

An anticlimax mixed with rueful wondering as to why such a beautifully conducted Fidelio should have been given this undeserved treatment. One must pay tribute to the thoroughness and care, to the endless rehearsal periods, with which Abbado, Kraus, and his production team and his cast addressed this major task, even if the results raise serious doubts about the underlying concept. Lorenzo Parmiggiani, said to be a widely acclaimed specialist in stage and event lighting, kept up a constantly fluid variation between shades of darkness and gloom. He could have done much to let the action speak for itself, instead of hiding it in, at best, misty gloom. Senseless back-projections and subliminally flickering lights are no substitutes for a stage lit so that one can see what the action wants to convey.

Fidelio at Baden-BadenIt may have some significance, that after the second performance, the production team did not take part in the carefully organized line-up thanking for the thunderous applause, which seems to have been concentrated, and rightly so, on Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. At the first performance in the Festspielhaus, there was loud booing when the production team appeared on the stage. It seems it does not pay to present Fidelio in a naked emperor's clothes.

I was looking forward to Abbado's Fidelio, and if I had kept my eyes closed throughout, I would have cherished this performance more than any I have ever heard. Because of my deep respect and admiration for Maestro Abbado, I forgive him for not having opted instead for an old-fashioned, even if moth-eaten, version of the work; but if anybody is entitled to present Fidelio in the way he thinks fit, and yet move us deeply, it is Abbado. Incidentally, when a reporter asked recently how to address him, he answered, "Call me Claudio!" So, augurissimi per suo compleanno, Claudio!

By Francis Shelton

Recent reviews from Baden-Baden's Festspielhaus:
Ivan Fischer conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra
La sonnambula
with Cecilia Bartoli
Gidon Kremer and Mikhail Pletnev
Bamberg Symphony with Jonathan Nott

Recent review of the Washington National Opera:
Tamerlano with Placido Domingo

Picture credits: Andrea Kremper