Beethoven: Fidelio

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, 31 March 2011 3  stars

Nina Stemme as Leonora (Photo © Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera)Announcing that Beethoven's Fidelio is an opera with problems is a bit like pointing out the calorie-count of a deep-fried Mars Bar. Even its defenders tend to agree that, if a masterstroke at all, it will be so (in the words of one writer) 'only once or twice in a lifetime'. It may be Beethoven's only opera, but easy to pull off it is not. Jürgen Flimm's production, currently in its first ROH revival, was premiered at the Met in 2000, was first performed at Covent Garden in 2007, and is directed here by Daniel Dooner.

Robert Israel's claustrophobic, industrial-military set takes us far from the libretto's nominal location in sixteenth-century Spain to the grim surroundings of postwar Eastern Europe: bare concrete interiors, stark fluorescent lighting and a dominant palette of khaki and grey find relief only in the tea dresses of the final chorus, while villain and saviour are similarly attired in sharp pinstripes. Flimm's production points hopefully towards 'classic' status, but it also has difficulties of its own making.

Some of these were painfully obvious. The long-awaited reunion of Leonore and Florestan was conducted, inexplicably, with the characters on opposite sides of the stage, Leonore addressing her namenlose Freude to a pile of suitcases on one side while Florestan remained crouched on the other. This was just one instance of several in which the chemistry and spatial relationships between characters were unconvincing, or even lacking altogether – the last thing you need in an opera that often ignores dramatic immediacy.

We also missed stronger direction in the passages of German dialogue – never the most dynamic moments of the work, particularly for an English audience – which were delivered so ponderously that any nascent sense of dramatic pace quickly congealed. This was doubly unfortunate in that Mark Elder took the rest of Beethoven's score at an efficient lick, drawing some stylish (if at times oddly timid) playing from the ROH orchestra.

Indeed, the evening's successes were largely musical: Nina Stemme, in her stage debut as Leonore, brought a wonderfully dark tone to the role. Her consummate execution of the fiendishly difficult 'Komm, Hoffnung' was matched by an impressive ability to scale the cell grills of Act 1 and narrow, cast-iron prison ladder of Act 2. Her performance was a highlight of the evening, and one alongside which Endrik Wottrich's Florestan (a role he also took in the 2007 run) unfortunately could not compete. In what is admittedly a difficult role dramatically as well as vocally, Wottrich had a tendency to sound strained and brittle. A more successful complement to Stemme's vocal heroism was Elisabeth Watts, whose Marzelline (set to work ironing unidentifiable beige garments) was charmingly suited to the opéra-comique ambience of the first scene, her phrases beautifully shaped and her acting creating a genuine dramatic presence.

The other vocal contributions were mixed. The well-known Prisoners' Chorus was moving, with clear diction and a poignantly blended sound, but would have been more effective still at a more subdued volume. Kurt Rydl's Rocco was unfocussed, his vibrato at times as woolly as his cardigan – more dodgy uncle than symbolic embodiment of the petty bourgeois.

John Wegner as Don Pizarro and Nina Stemme as Leonora (Photo © Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera)John Wegner was for the most part a competently thuggish Pizarro, although uncomfortable in the upper register (and was all that mimed shooting really necessary?); Willard White's turn as the improbably punctual Don Fernando brought gravitas to proceedings, but at times to such an extent that he parted rhythmic company with the pit. Nor was White alone in this latter failing: minor ensemble problems between stage and pit cropped up at various points, and came to a spectacular (anti-)climax in the final triumphal chorus, its closing bars barely ensemble at all.

One of Fidelio's main problems is, famously, that it has two plots: the domestic, opéra-comique focus of the opening scene (complete with flouncing soubrette and jealous lover) gives way to transcendent freedom-narrative in the rest. The work's supporters of course all prefer the latter, recognising in it the 'heroic' composer of the Fifth and Ninth symphonies. But in this production it seemed as if the domesticity triumphed: the combined vocal and dramatic energies of Stemme and Watts meant that, at least in vocal terms, Fidelio and Marzelline appealed more than Leonore and Florestan. Such a shift (however accidental) brought further difficulties, of course – not least an exacerbation of the opera's lack of momentum, with the final triumph of freedom and justice even harder to swallow. Stemme's performance, then, is the making of this production; but even she can't entirely save Beethoven's magnum opus from becoming mired in its own conundrums.

By Flora Willson

Photos © Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera