The boundless cruelty of a government that imprisons and tortures its opponents, the soul-destroying complicity of functionaries who uphold the state’s brutality and the redeeming power of an individual who defies the state – the themes of Beethoven’s Fidelio have not dated.
It’s no wonder that David Lang took Beethoven’s only opera as the inspiration. The American composer has created a robust new work that distils Fidelio’s essence, dispensing with the extraneous plot elements to focus on the central tale of a political prisoner who is rescued from a hellish prison by his loyal wife, who disguises herself as a young man to ingratiate herself with a jailer and confront the murderous governor.
Lang’s music is characterised by soaring vocal lines underpinned by propulsive rhythms. This, along with Elkhanah Pulitzer’s fine direction, make for a fast-moving production (clocking in at just over an hour). Lang teases out the Fidelio set-pieces. The Prisoner’s aria becomes an idealistic vision for a better world that is countered by the Governor in his aria, declaiming that it is better to be feared than to be loved.
Julia Mathevet triumphs in the heroic Leonore role, here called the Assistant, while Jarrett Ott impresses as the bloodied yet defiant Prisoner. Davóne Tines as the Jailor is compelling in voice and presence, while Alan Oke as the Governor has dramatic command but is less solid vocally.
Matt Saunders’ innovative set places the chorus of prisoners in a massive cage at the back of the stage, while the brutalist architecture of the Barbican Hall transforms easily into a prison backdrop.
Lang’s reworking of Fidelio is a kick to the gut with real emotional power.