Like abridged editions of novels, semi-staged performances of opera are somewhat doomed enterprises. If not given a clear sense of direction, each of the singers will be left to interpret "semi-staged" in their own way, and the result can be a muddle of styles and levels of commitment to each other and to the work. Such was the case at the Oxford Philomusica's recent one-off performance of Fidelio.
To be fair, the interpreters were certainly not helped by Beethoven and Sonnleithner's awkward, if frequently dazzling, opera, rife as it is with internal inconsistencies. But there are plenty of moments where music and drama break through into something transcendent (the Prisoners' Chorus, for instance, or the Act I quartet "Mir ist so Wunderbar"). Those moments can only work, however, if the singers form a true ensemble, as blood-bound as the voices in any of Beethoven's piano sonatas or string quartets. Here in the Sheldonian, an intimate theatre that can make anything sound like chamber music, that should have been relatively easy. But the singers were more like satellites, each in his or her own solitary orbit. Some were phoning it in, while others were somewhat out of their depth. This left the one or two who fully inhabited their roles rather stranded.
The most striking contrast in performing styles was between the two leads. Tom Randle managed to project a convincingly weak Florestan in his opening recitative ("Gott! welch' Dunkel hier"), his exaggerated hairpins each time he sang "Leonoren" conveying a sense of love's power animating a man otherwise near death. The flights of his subsequent aria ("In des Lebens Frühlingstagen") were assured, if somewhat nasal. Janice Watson, on the other hand, only seemed to come alive at the opera's climax, when Leonore reveals her identity and steps in to save Florestan from Don Pizarro. Earlier, Watson had delivered Leonore's lone aria ("Komm, Hoffnung") beautifully, but without a sense of anything really at stake for the character, and the highest passages throughout the evening were labored. Thankfully, the ecstatic love duet "O namenlose Freude" showed Watson in the right blend of dramatic abandon and vocal stamina, and she and Randle had at least one moment of real rapport.
Richard Edgar-Wilson did a remarkable job of making the most thankless role in the opera—Jaquino—interesting, even poignant. As his would-be bride, Abigail Mitchell looked nervous, but she never let it show in her voice, and though her soprano might be a bit too dark for Marzelline, she sailed comfortably to the top in her many vocal ensembles. As Pizarro, Roderick Earle scowled appropriately and bit off his consonants with villainous glee, but his tone suffered in the process, and he tended to disappear in quicker passages. Johann Till made for a satisfying Rocco, though I found myself distracted by his choice of "costume" (polo shirt and cargo pants do not a gaoler make) and by his equally off-hand approach to the role. Quentin Hayes was capable, if predictably stiff, as Don Fernando. The men of the Philomusica Chorus did not massage the suspensions in "O welche Lust" to my satisfaction, but in the Act II finale the full chorus had the necessary vim and vigor.
The musicians handled themselves capably, though they were often thrown by the singers' (and Beethoven's) idiosyncracies of tempo. Their warm and well-proportioned sound nearly compensated for the lapses in precision: the horns came through every time, and Papadopoulos had his low strings dig in gloriously when called upon to do so (as in the introduction to "Mir ist so wunderwar").
The Philomusica only rarely programs complete operas; let us hope they will make it a regular part of the schedule, but with more attention to dramaturgy next time.
Photo credits: Oxford Philomusica