by Dr. Kyriakos Loukakos, Hon. President of the Greek Drama and music Critics Union (est. 1928)
We had planned our journey to London much time in advance. And it promised to be exciting, since the March 2020 performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s final thoughts on «Fidelio» (1814), to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer (1770-1827), lured audiences from all over the world thanks to an exceptional pair of protagonists conducted by the experienced Sir Antonio Pappano. As time went by and the sad global events regarding the new so called «corona virus» expanded, the anticipation became nervousness, reflected in publications and nurtured by Jonas Kaufmann’s failure to participate to a dress rehearsal. His Florestan, second to none nowadays and globally known thanks to the commercial release of a rather debatable Salzburg Festival 2015 production by Claus Guth, would be the main attraction, were it not for the comparably hot news of Lise Davidsen’s holding the part of the work’s heroine Leonore. To all of us who had the privilege of attending her 2019 Bayreuth Festival debut, as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner’s «Tannhäuser», it was obvious that the young soprano from Norway brought back fond memories of such an exceptional artist as Birgit Nilsson indisputably had been to this and other repertoire.
Kaufmann managed to get over a bad cold in time for the performances, so widespread fears of a cancellation thankfully did not materialize. Neither on the evening of the March 6 performance we attended, in an overcrowded Royal Opera House, with no safety distancing at all among the public, nor on March 17, when the performance was recorded by the BBC for a local as well as EBU transmission by several European radio stations. It was unfortunate though that the Bayreuth inheritance to London brought to this important opera house not only the benefit of Davidsen but also the drawback of its «Tannhäuser»’s director Tobias Kratzer.
Following an overused pattern of interventionism, Kratzer felt free to retouch even the text of the libretto, taking for granted that «like no other opera, Beethoven’s Fidelio falls into two unequal parts» with «act I … a historical melodrama on freedom and love in the post-Revolutionary era» and «act II … a political essay on the responsibility of the individual in the face of a silent majority, a musical plea for active empathy». But even in this twisted notion of his, the director who forewent the fact that Leonore defends freedom for the purpose of marital love in order to promote his act 2 vision, did not hesitate to transform her unequivocally visionary cabaletta of her big act 1 aria as a mere confrontation of the noblewoman with the jailor’s daughter Marzelline, in love with her in her disguise as a young man under the name of Fidelio. This and other equally unsupported presuppositions dictated the crash difference of the scenography between the acts, as well as a totally «verfrememdetes» scenical ambience for act 2, which found Florestan on an Ariadne-like desert island, far from the oppressing, humid darkness of his prison, surrounded with 3 rows of seated overviewers.
In this alienation from the clear lines, «sturdy symmetry» of the original play and «symmetrical disposition of the seven main characters … preserved in Beethoven’s opera while the architectural framework of Bouilly’s libretto was considerably expanded» (so in William Kindermann, The French Revolution and Beyond, Royal Opera House program, page 25) Kratzer disregarded much more obvious and contemporary options to safeguard the work’s structure and internal balances, indeed its perhaps involuntary but definitely post modern qualities. Then, what begins as a nearly entertaining and even naïve amorous situation in the ominous Seville prison extends gradually to a rescue thriller with powerful, shocking musical and dramatic elements and effects, as well as with a liberating communal message to the world. In this respect all above discrepancies and additions, including Marzelline’s supposedly acquired awareness and her subsequent transformation to the tyrant’s assassin, as well as poor Jacquino being left alone on stage as the curtain falls, as one of «those who are left behind and whose wounds nurture the destructive potential to become tomorrow’s Pizarro» (so Bettina Bartz ‘s, the performance’s dramaturg, Beethoven’s Call for Empathy, article based on an interview with a.o. Tobias Kratzer, as above, p. 19), syrely diminished the work’s direct message, as also did the uncertain effort to historically confine the action to the Terreur period of Bouilly’s original play.
In this alienating context, largely detracting from the direct dramatic appeal of the opera, the musical performance also did not avoid detriment, first and foremost regarding Pappano’ s lacklustre, indeed underpowered conducting of the otherwise sound Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus. Even the building of a suitably ominous atmosphere for the prisoners chorus eluded him. Regarding the cast, Marzelline and Jacquino were ably and soundly defended by American soprano Amanda Forsythe and Irish tenor Robin Tritschler respectively. British baritone Simon Neal, presented Pizarro as a rather weak and not particularly authoritative character (his on stage horse riding intensifying his stage uncertainty). There was an alarming timbral resemblance among him and the ever musical but thin bass of Georg Zeppenfeld’s Rocco as well as Lithuanian bass-baritone Egils Silins’s Don Fernando, decisively deprived of his ministerial authority by the Regie.
Besides remaining the unrivalled stars of an otherwise annoying and dull evening, even the protagonists suffered particularly in regard with empathy, so much invoked and supposedly seeked by Kratzer. Of course Jonas Kaufmann excelled as Florestan, with exquisitely fine singing line throughout the 2nd act. His one breath extended declamation, rising superbly from pianissimo to fortissimo for the initial «Gott!», was indeed of Golden Age standards, while the creamy, caressing warmth of his baritonal tenor was expressively employed up to the service of the noblest artistic aspirations imaginable. Nevertheless we firmly believe that his impersonation would have been even more moving had he been left alone to handle the human drama of his character with his own theatrical instinct and stahe charisma. As for Lise Davidsen, she presented an imposing, youthful and impetuous Leonore, her ideally burnished tone fearlessly rising to the challenge of even her most exposed passages, without even minimal loss of tonal fullness or clarity of diction. And yes, she yearningly reminded us of the late and unforgettable Birgit Nilsson. Such a pity one has to retain the indelible memories of her and Kaufmann as mere redeeming factors for an otherwise forgettable operatic experience!