At the height of the Act Two finale of Beethoven's Fidelio, the main protagonist, Leonore, sings the line 'O welch' ein Augenblick!', which translates as 'O, what a moment!'. Yet in spite of some exquisite singing and playing, what this performance lacked was precisely what Leonore mentions: a sense of the sublime moment.
Part of the problem was Jürgen Flimm's production, which is owned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York but is on loan to Covent Garden for the first time. Overall, the direction is far from appalling - in fact, it has some extraordinarily imaginative ideas. Prime amongst these is the staging of the trio at the end of Act One. Leonore has dressed as a man known as Fidelio so that she can work at the prison where Florestan, her husband, is incarcerated, in the hope of rescuing him. Unfortunately, Marzelline, the daughter of the gaoler Rocco, has fallen in love with Leonore in her male guise. In the trio at the end of the first act, Leonore negotiates permission to go down to Florestan's cell, whilst Rocco gives permission for Marzelline to marry Fidelio. Flimm ingeniously stages the scene as a mock wedding, with Rocco as the 'minister' tying the bonds between Marzelline and Leonore/Fidelio and putting rings on their fingers. To cap it all, Leonore hastily exchanges the ring given to her by Rocco for her real wedding ring, bringing home to the audience just how horrific her situation is and acting as a reminder of the dangers she incurs while trying to save Florestan.
But such clever moments were few and far between in a production that veered in all kinds of unrelated directions, making for an incoherent whole. Flimm does not act upon the dramatic clues that are littered throughout the score and fails to live up to the challenges of the big set pieces. The uplifting Prisoners' Chorus is meant to be an expression of the relief and wonder felt by a group of political prisoners on being freed into the daylight; they bask in the warm sunshine, which is conveyed by Beethoven's outpouring of an overwhelming orchestral and vocal palette. Yet Robert Israel's set doesn't allow Flimm to make much of the moment. The prisoners on the ground level are let out of the cells and stand there looking bored while those on the first floor have to make do with a consolatory handshake (through the prison bars) from Leonore; indeed, the chorus was woefully under-directed throughout, unlike the solo singers, who seemed well-drilled in general.
The first scene of Act Two was rather too dark at first, and much of the action - most notably Leonore's saving of her husband, which is the focus of the work! - was blurred. Meanwhile, the final scene seemed to portray the destruction of a monument to a dictator (presumably the evil Pizarro, though confusingly the monument looks like that of a Communist dictator whilst the women are dressed in gaudy pinks and blues and the bare-chested tattooed soldiers look like they're about to burst into 'There is nothing like a dame' from South Pacific), appropriately enough given that this is an opera about freedom. But I have not the faintest idea why the chorus suddenly pulled knives (was it a job lot?) out of their pockets and jabbed them in the general direction of Pizarro, nor why the soldiers were controlling the people with machine guns in this scene. That this stirring paean to liberty is dominated by images of control and oppression seriously undermines the sense of apotheosis provided by the music.
From the musical point of view, the performance was also mixed. Perhaps the decision to hold the first performance of the run as an afternoon matinee was to blame, but the coordination between pit and stage was awry in far too many of the numbers and many of the singers took a while to get into their stride. In Act One particularly, I felt that Antonio Pappano didn't quite capture the transcendent quality of the score, preferring to drive the piece forward with sometimes mercilessly rapid tempi (something that recurred in the finale); without doubt, this was a fast Fidelio. Yet there is much to recommend his reading. The oboe and clarinet solos in various numbers were always allowed prominence, giving nuance to the score; the light, Mozartian-pastiche feel of the opening scene was given its due rather than being brushed over; the sinister side of Pizarro's character was conveyed through the darkness of the music (if not in Flimm's rather clichéd interpretation of him as a city banker/fat cat type); and in numbers whose effect depends on the accumulation of texture or tension, such as the awe-inspiring quartet and the atmospheric orchestral opening to the second act, Pappano's interpretation was undeniably gripping.
Though none of the singers gave absolutely perfect performances, the two leads in particular were excellent. Karita Mattila is ideal for the role of Leonore, as her height and slenderness allow her to dress up rather credibly as a man. Her voice remains as gorgeous as ever, whether in the first act aria or the duet with Florestan, though it took her a while to warm up to her most dazzling form. As for Florestan himself, Endrik Wottrich gave an extraordinary account of his music - from the moment he sang his first word ('Gott!'), it was clear that he had the role well within his powers. A shame, then, that Flimm made him into a rather redundant character with almost nothing to do and no personality for much of his stage time.
Former Royal Opera Young Artists Ailish Tynan and Robert Murray did themselves credit in the roles of Marzelline and Jaquino, Tynan singing and acting sweetly and Murray performing boldly. Eric Halfvarson's singing as Rocco was superbly rounded, though I felt that Flimm's treatment of him as a buffo cipher rather than a real person was a blot on the landscape, even if the opera does have its roots in French comic opera. Terje Stensvold boomed away successfully enough as Don Pizarro, Robert Lloyd commanded the attention of the audience as Don Fernando and the two prisoners (Young Artists Haoyin Xue and Krzysztof Szumanski) helped to redress the imbalance of the Prisoners' Chorus by singing their lines with a sense of wonder.
Yet somehow, an ingredient of Beethovenian awe was lacking from the experience. Perhaps as the run continues with evening performances, the production will manage to gain it.