Beethoven's Fidelio is an opera designed to provoke outrage. Any production that doesn't provoke is a betrayal of the composer. Salzburg's new Fidelio is provocative, but that's exactly how it should be. Fidelio is an opera about ideas. Like it or not, Claus Guth's production does engage with the ideas and ideals central to any genuine engagement with the opera. He presents an unusual take on the piece, but nonetheless one which is valid and thoughtful. If we dismiss ideas because they don't fit our own, we're no better than the Don Pizarros of this world.
Leonore (Adrianna Pieczonka) is ogled by Marzelline (Olga Beszmertna) Perhaps the scene was written to show that Leonore's impersonation of a man can convince a woman. But one wonders just how much Leonore is a symbol rather than a character. Beethoven related to concepts, rather than to real women. Thus the minimalist set, where the singers cast huge shadows that take on a life of their own, depending on the angle of lighting and shadow. The dynamic between Rocco (Hans-Peter Kõnig), Jaquino (Norbert Ernst) and the two female roles is interesting. Kõnig's a big man, who literally overshadows Jacquino: even at this stage one wonders if Marzelline could ever commit to marriage the way Leonore commits to Florestan. The music in these scenes is charming, in Singspiele style, but one wonders about the irony. Like The Magic Flute, charm masks darker undertones.
Guth dispenses with bantering dialogue. Audiences know (or should know) the story well enough to follow the action as drama for its own sake. I liked the shadows, and the costumes of the choruses because they reminded me of Scherenschnitte, so popular in Beethoven's time - black silhouettes against white backgrounds that depict figures in stylized relief, deliberately evading realism. Period detail does exist in this production, you just have to look closely. Leonore and Don Pizarro have non-singing "shadows" acting behind them. There's a kind of rationale to this but it confuses things.
Instead of dialogue, Guth employs strange sound effects. When I first heard this, audio-only, the sounds seemed disruptive because there weren't any visuals to explain what was going on. The sounds made more sense on stage because they suggested whirring and the movement of vast, cumbersome equipment. Indeed, during the all-important Leonore Overture, we see stage hands changing the scenery. At first I couldn't understand, but then it occurred to me that we were seeing depicted before us the Deus ex machina resolution. Without the sudden appearance of Don Fernando (Sebastien Holecek) how might the story end ? Hence the Overture which separates the main part of the opera with the elegantly-written postlude, like the Moral in Don Giovanni. But in Fidelio, the loose ends aren't tidied up. We hear the music, but do we really know what happens next? In real life political oppression, the bad guys usually win. Happy endings don't happen unless there are major "scene changes" in society.
It's quite possible that the opera is happening in Florestan's head. Can he really only escape the dungeon through ideas and ideals? It's a provocative concept, but certainly not invalid. In the opera, Florestan does nothing heroic, though we know he's been a hero in the past. Leonore is the protagonist, the action man/woman who can defy the entire prison system and do what Florestan, trapped in prison, cannot do. Florestan is an intellectual, a man who uses his mind, so why shouldn't he use his mind to contemplate his dilemma? Florestan (Jonas Kaufmann) doesn't even appear until the Seciond Act, but when he does, it's significant that he's alone, without hope, singing his amazing monologue.
Thus Pieczonka "sings" without sound during the Prisoners Chorus and gesticulates frantically without saying a word, towards the conclusion. The giant chandelier hangs oppressively over the stage. The prisoners have glimpsed artificial light but they have not been released. The minimalism in this staging (designs by Christian Schmidt) support the idea that the drama is happening in Florestan's head, but like the strange mechanical sound effects, the scenes don't translate well audio-only. In the radio broadcast, Kaufmann had to sing across a vast, empty void, which placed his voice under unnatural strain. Perhaps that's logical, given that he's been starved and deprived of light for two years, but I'd rather hear him do what he does best. Fortunately, he sang gloriously in his dialogues with Pieczonka and the rest of the ensemble. Then, basking in the illumination of his imagination, Kaufmann's Florestan become a true hero, liberated by his art.
Franz Welser-Möst conducted. Twenty-five years ago, in London, he dared to upset some entrenched interests, and was given the nickname "Worse than Most". That was a vicious act of bullying and unfair, yet the abuse continues, perpetuated by many who don't know the original circumstances but repeat things on autopilot. Welser-Möst isn't worse than most and a lot better than many. So he's not demonstrative and doesn't court popularity, but he's a solid musician, who deserves respect. In Fidelio, clear-sighted commitment and dignity are more important than flamboyance. Furthermore, he has guts. Last September he quit the Vienna State Opera right at the start of the season, discreetly not giving reasons. It was a job he loved, and filled for longer than most, but he wasn't alone in being discomforted by Dominique Meyer and the likes of Sven-Erik Bertolf.
Please also read my pieces on Claus Guth's soulless Salzburg Don Giovanni and on his Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House which everyone seemed to love but I hated. Read Follow the Falcon here. In Fidelio, the action might conceivably be in Florestan's mind, but the action in DFoSch almost certainly isn't. For a really good Die Frau Ohne Schatten, go to the Salzburg production directed by Christof Loy. Read my analysis here. That did seem provocative, but it was infinitely more profound and musically sensitive. Guth's Fidelio works, but it's depressing and doesn't have the ferocious, hard-hitting bite of Calixto Bieito's Fidelio which really engaged with the issues - and the politics of the opera (read my analysis here). Now THAT was so provocative that it was met with near hysteria. But it was a lot closer to Beethoven's intentions than its detractors realized.