“Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. These are three foreign words a British audience is guaranteed to understand. This imperative of the French Revolution was emblazoned in large letters on the Royal Opera House’s safety curtain at the start of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, in a new staging by the German director Tobias Kratzer. Since the cameras were on us, the main drape transformed into a video screen on which we could see ourselves taking our seats, we knew we were implicated.
Many had flown in specially to hear the German superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann singing the role of Florestan, who doesn’t appear until Act 2. This was the year’s hottest ticket for an opera that is not an automatic sell-out. Kaufmann has unique allure even when he is under the weather. An announcement was made, indulgence asked. He still sang formidably, unleashing his opening line with typically magnificent control, though he looked utterly miserable when he took his final bow. In contrast, singing the title role, the young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen smiled winningly at the outburst of cheers that greeted her.
Conducted with restless intensity by the Royal Opera’s music director, Antonio Pappano, the orchestra on bristling form, this keenly anticipated staging was Kratzer’s Covent Garden debut. I didn’t see his Wagner production at the Bayreuth festival last year, though one newspaper headline suggests what I missed: “Tannhäuser mit Clown und Drag Queen”. Nor will Kratzer’s Fidelio please all. With additional dialogue concocted by the director from various sources, this production featured live video of a woman eating chocolate, and the brief appearance of a glossy horse called Tys. It was booed (production, not horse) by a noisy few at the curtain call of the opening matinee. Yes, there were irritations, but the interpolations often deepened the possible meanings of this jagged and never comfortable masterpiece.
The two acts of Fidelio differ radically from each other. Kratzer and his designer, Rainer Sellmaier, have run with this notion: not merely a game of two halves but unmatched halves of two entirely different sports. The prison setting of Act 1 will reassure traditionalists. A French tricolour hangs over the gateway. Frock coats, tricorns, breeches, all confirm the story’s Reign of Terror context. The opera’s plot is straightforward, even if the background details remain obscure: Leonore, dressed as a man and called Fidelio, wants to free her husband, Florestan, a political prisoner, held in a dungeon cell. To do so, she takes a job at the prison and wins the trust of the jailer, Rocco (Georg Zeppenfeld).
But what’s this? We know Marzelline (Amanda Forsythe), the jailer’s daughter, has fallen for this stranger and lost interest in her boyfriend, Jaquino (Robin Tristschler). Normally confined to emptying the laundry basket, here Marzelline tries to pull Fidelio’s trousers off. Logically enough, she soon realises Fidelio is a woman, usually only revealed at the end. It’s an intriguing twist, which humanises Marzelline and fills out a flimsy storyline. There’s another side to her in this production, involving a trumpet and a pistol, which, despite the feminist instinct and Forsythe’s sympathetic performance, backfires. The villainous Pizarro’s loving attention to his horse while he squeezed the life out of a caged bird was well handled. Yet Simon Neal seemed out of sorts as this murderous governor (and pulled out of a subsequent performance). Pappano and the orchestra compensated with chilling volleys and explosions from the pit.
In the second act, Kratzer shreds any pretence at good theatrical behaviour. All imagery from the previous act has vanished. The blackness of Beethoven’s score in the revolutionary prelude – a straight path to Wagner – heralds not the usual dark dungeon but a bright room full of people, bystanders. We’ve left the 18th century, indicated only by a pedimented doorway, and joined selfie-obsessed modern life. The scene could be a contemporary art gallery, with Kaufmann resembling a hair-shirted John the Baptist splayed on one of Richard Long’s slate circle sculptures: a mere exhibit.
There’s too much messy activity here, not least at the end when the reunited Leonore and Florestan have to change their clothes mid-song. The live video would be more effective if curtailed. The point that society turns its back until forced into understanding is true enough, but clunkily hammered home. If you can, go and see it live in cinemas on 17 March. Davidsen, her voice soaring, rich, unstoppable, started a little anxiously and rose to glory. The grand, choral finale is as noisy, joyful and heartbreaking as you’re likely to hear, terrifically sung by the ROH chorus. For those of us who love this work, more mysterious symphonic struggle than conventional opera, any chance to hear it is a high day.
Beethoven spent years reworking Fidelio – from the first performance in 1805 to the final version in 1814 – while also completing other scores, among them the Fourth Piano Concerto. The American Jeremy Denk was soloist in a fresh, inventive and engrossing performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä. It was part of the LPO’s 2020 Vision series of works spanning three centuries (in which the orchestra also performed Krzysztof Penderecki’s tender Chaconne in memory of John Paul II, 2005, and Enescu’s rampant and colourful Symphony No 1). Denk gave the left hand its own emphasis and vitality, helping us hear the structure, as well as the humour in Beethoven’s familiar but never knowable work. As an encore, Denk wowed everyone with an outrageous ragtime version of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser. Raise a laugh from Wagner? This pianist manifestly did.
Star ratings (out of five)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vänskä ★★★★
• Fidelio is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 17 March