Beethoven Fidelio at the Teatro alla Scala Milan, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Musically superb: after hearing the BR Klassik broadcast live online, I was stunned. Now, having seen a copy of the video broadcast on RAI 5, I'm still stunned by the quality of the playing and singing but very disappointed by the staging.
Fidelio is an opera of ideas, theatre of the intellect, rather than simple entertainment. Like it or not, Fidelio is a political opera. and needs passionate commitment. In Barenboim, Fidelio gets an interpreter who truly understands Beethoven's passionate convictions. He's conducted Fidelio many times, in many different forms. This is an opera that can't be fixed in concrete, for its ideas live on, absolutely pertinent today. In 2009, Barenboim did Fidelio with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members know more about political strife at first hand than most opera audiences. For that performance, Barenboim incorporated spoken narration, using texts by the late, great Edward Said, co-founder of the orchestra and the theorist behind its lofty ideals.
For the gala opening night at La Scala Milan. usually a focus for political demonstrations, Barenboim chose a different approach, though equally intelligent and strong-minded. This time, his focus highlighted the opera in terms of the values and music of 1814. Beethoven had admired Napoléon as liberator and modernizer, but turned against him as tyrant. Napoléon obviously wasn't the first or last autocrat who throw dissidents into dungeons. The Austrian regime in Beethoven's time almost certainly did so, too. Thus the libretto, set in 18th century Seville, provides a disguise for its radicalism, much in the way that Leonore's manly costume and wifely virtues provide a cloak for her intentions.
By choosing the 1814 version of the Overture, Barenboim firmly places Fidelio in context, and shows how radical Beethoven was as musician as well as thinker. Leonore II, less elaborate than Leonore III, brings out the aesthetic of the First Act, linking it to the music theatre and even Singspiele traditions of the time. Hence the importance of the spoken dialogue and the somewhat stylized series of set pieces where various combinations of singers participate. Some people don't like Fidelio, much in the way some don't like Zauberflõte,. but Barenboim shows how the First Act operates. Each sequence is neatly defined, building up to a unified whole, as strong in its own way as the action-packed second act. Think Mozart or Haydn, rather than Verdi or Wagner. The drama lies in the dynamics of the delivery, spoken and sung. The characters are at cross-purposes, but the singing is so precise and vibrant that their misapprehensions about each other come to life vividly.
With Kwangchul Youn as Rocco and Falk Struckmann as Don Pizarro, and later Peter Mattei as Don Fernando, we have a cast of of truly Wagnerian performers, each of whom brings exceptional authority to their parts. Youn's Rocco is so strongly defined that the role becomes central. Rocco is "king" in his prison, not a weak man but one with the potential to choose between good and evil. The tension between Youn's Rocco and Struckmann's Don Pizarro is so powerful that it adds depth and dimension. Florian Hoffmann and Mojca Erdmann turn Jacquino and Marzelline into strong figures, too, particularly when singing with Youn. The chorus sings in remarkable unison, perfectly drilled. That, too, has dramatic meaning. When the proletariat sticks together, there's hope.
Anja Kampe's Leonore is wonderfully wild and athletic, ideal for the part. Kampe's Leonore is a heroine who defies convention, yet is a real woman not a goddess, nor an ideological reconstruct of a man. Have there been many like her in the arts since Greek times? Klaus Florian Vogt is perfect - nice, warm-sounding and "human", which is so important to the meaning of the work. After the pounding, malevolent introduction to Act Two, his voice enters "How dark it is in here". Simple words, but Vogt's voice expresses wonder and horror so great that you can feel the physical presence of the darkness and the magnitude of Florestan's imprisonment. Then, when he sings "Angel, Leonore, my angel" you can visualize the apparition rising before him: a miracle has happened. Vogt's Florestan is understated, so the character comes over as warmly personal and human. Again, this has dramatic meaning, reminding us that political prisoners are normal, vulnerable people, neither superhuman monsters nor deities. They suffer.
And what playing Barenboim gets from the Teatro alla Scala orchestra! Tension, intensity and ecstatic release racheted up so high that I had to hold my breath or burst, emotionally. The audience must have felt the same way, exploding with bravi! as if their hearts could hold out no more.
Unfortunately the insights and inspiration in the musical performance are badly let down by insipid staging. Deborah Warner's forte is glossy glamour, but that's hardly relevant to Fidelio. This is fashion shoot grunge, and dramatically inert. It's not enough to dress the principals down. Designs have to contribute to meaning. The prisoners are shown in various types of "normal" dress, which in principle might be valid, but the overall effect is to show them as street mob, rather than as oppressed, regimented prisoners. This contradicts the disciplined power of the singing and dispels the idea that the prisoners, for all their diversity, have something to strive for. The "Sonnenlicht" chorus glows vocally, but the staging is a blurry mess.The "Freheit" chorus is sung with savage delirium - as it should be - but what's the point when the poor singers are wearing red hard hats and warm football crowd gear? In an age when governments still practice torture and prisoners are still held in Guantanomo Bay and by ISIS, it's almost obscene to trivialize polticial persecution. Audiences were enraged by Calixto Bieito's Fidelio with its harsh grid-form, multi-dimensional "prison" but that was a far more astute reading of the situation. (read more here). If we're not enraged by tyranny, there's something very wrong.