This year marks 250 years since Beethoven’s birth. For opera companies the anniversary choice is simple, since he completed only one opera, Fidelio, which the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne are both presenting in new productions and which Garsington is also reviving in a 2014 staging by John Cox.
Beethoven produced three versions of Fidelio (1805, 1806 and 1814), plus no fewer than four overtures to introduce the piece. Tobias Kratzer’s production gives us the standard musical score – the final version – but he has rewritten much of the spoken dialogue, incorporating additional text from two near contemporaries of the composer: the playwright Georg Büchner and the poet Franz Grillparzer, who delivered Beethoven’s funeral oration.
The staging is noticeably a game of two halves. The first act is relatively conventional, a period drama set at the time of the French Revolution (the libretto is supposedly based on a true incident that took place during that historical epoch), and indeed in France, rather than the designated Spain, which Kratzer believes was merely a device behind which to hide the original, more controversial setting. So far, so traditional.
It’s after the interval that the production shifts to modern dress for the chorus (on thrilling form, incidentally), who sit around a cumbersome rock that stands in for the dungeon where Jonas Kaufmann’s Florestan has been imprisoned for two years and from which Lise Davidsen as his wife Leonore (disguised as a young man) rescues him, though in fact in Kratzer’s staging she has some unexpected assistance – one of a few surprises in the show’s later stages that I won’t reveal, though all of them strike me as thought-provoking interventions.
It is, though, worth mentioning that the role of Marzelline – the jailor’s daughter who has fallen in love with Fidelio, believing him to be a man – has been bulked up and is astutely realised by the comprehensively excellent Amanda Forsythe; and to a lesser degree that, too, of Marzelline’s unwanted admirer Jaquino, played with a palpable sense of unease by Robin Tritschler.
But all the individual performers enter loyally into Kratzer’s vision and their singing is regularly exceptional. Rising star Davidsen seizes every opportunity as a vocally lithe yet heroic Leonore. An announcement excuses Kaufmann for being under the weather, but from his thrilling crescendo on his very first note onwards he is outstanding. Though Simon Neal’s Don Pizarro misses a few top notes, his villainy is full-on. Georg Zeppenfeld exemplifies perfectly the moral dilemma that Rocco fails.
This is a great night, too, for the Royal Opera House Orchestra, its playing lacking nothing in precision or spirit. All too easily one immediately associates Antonio Pappano with excellence in Italian opera, but here he undoubtedly rises to the Beethovenian heights, and lifts the other performers up with him.