Beethoven's wonderfully strange stage work, an 18th-century singspiel that transforms itself into a 19th-century romantic opera, has its problems, to which perceptive productions generally find more or less convincing solutions. But of all the adjectives that can be applied to Welsh National Opera's new staging – pretentious, perverse, profoundly unmusical – perceptive is not among them. Few of the intrinsic problems are even addressed by Giuseppe Frigeni, who directs, designs and does his own lighting; on the contrary, most of what he does only exacerbates the issues, throttling the work's dramatic life in the process.
Frigeni has created a perfectly serviceable set – proscenium-high caged walkways that can be arranged in any number of configurations – which he lights effectively enough. It's when he starts putting flesh-and-blood characters into this frame that the difficulties begin. There's a near-total lack of characterisation among the protagonists, who are statuesque most of the time, and the dialogue is pruned to just a few phrases so that the drama loses all semblance of continuity, or any kind of context for the musical numbers. Going from Marzelline's aria in the first act straight into the sublime quartet Mir Ist So Wunderbar, entirely neutralises its emotional power, while the Prisoners' Chorus, though beautifully sung by the WNO chorus, lacks any kind of magic.
The solo singing can't replace what's missing either. Dennis O'Neill has regularly defied the years in his recent roles for WNO, but taking on Florestan at this stage of his career seems one taxing role too far. His singing was always effortful, and at crucial moments here effort was just not enough. With a director more interested in what characters say and do, Lisa Milne's Leonora might be able to build a real performance on to her lustrous phrases, but so far it's only a promising sketch. Elizabeth Donovan (Marzelline) and Robin Tritschler (Jaquino) hardly stand a chance either. Only Clive Bayley's Rocco seems to come from a believable world, in which characters walk normally, interact and have personalities.
The other plus of the evening – and it's a significant one – comes in the pit, where, from the start of the feisty, finely played overture, Lothar Koenigs signals that he at least knows how to locate the beating heart of Beethoven's score. The pity is that his performance has to contend with the work of a director who plainly doesn't.