Fidelio – Irish National Opera – Gaiety Theatre – Review
by Paddy McGovern
The Irish National Opera’s new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio – Running time is 2 hours 10 minutes including a 20-minute interval.
Sinéad Campbell Wallace’s debut with the Irish National Opera is a triumph – both for her and the company.
Beethoven’s admiration for those who struggle against oppression and injustice and his contempt for tyrants are well documented. Fidelio follows the path of so many of the concertos and symphonies, from gloom and melancholy to light and freedom. Annabel Comyn’s detailed but unfussy direction clearly charts that progress throughout the performance.
The story of the opera is straightforward: the heroic struggle of a woman, Leonore (Campbell Wallace) to free her innocent husband, Florestan (Robert Murray, tenor) from imprisonment by a brutal oppressor, Don Pizarro (baritone Brian Mulligan). The prison is run by Rocco (Daniel Sumegi), not really evil, more the I-was-only-following-orders type. Sumegi’s superb bass-baritone is matched by his characterisation, by turn happy to go along with the boss’s wishes – because it’s his job – and racked by guilt at the idea of murder. To gain access to the prison, Leonore disguises herself as a young man (Fidelio), risking the same fate as Florestan if discovered.
As assistant jailer, Jaquino, tenor Dean Power’s ardent pursuit of Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline (Kelli-Ann Masterson) is affecting in his bemusement. It is a charismatic performance, sung with a sincerity to match Power’s beautiful tone. That Marzelline falls in love with “Fidelio” inevitably leads to complications. Her youthful innocence and her infatuation with Fidelio are captured by the purity of her voice, blending perfectly with Campbell Wallace’s deeper, richer tone in their Act l duet, as Leonore longs to be reunited with Florestan.
Any lazy criticism of Fidelio as being static is swept away in this production by Comyn’s direction. The famous quartet, Mir ist so wunderbar, (Rocco, Leonore, Marzelline and Jaquino) is sung to the ticking of lists on clip-boards, the counting of money and unpacking of boxes in Rocco’s office, each singer locked musically as one, but each absorbed in their own very different thoughts and fears. Far from distracting, it makes so much more sense psychologically than the usual face-the-audience-and-sing-it approach.
As the noble Florestan, who spoke the truth and chains are his reward, tenor Robert Murray opens Act ll with his massive – and massively difficult – aria.
It is a riveting moment, one that sums up what makes this production memorable: fine singing, deeply internalised characterisation and minimal theatrical ‘business’. Baritone Brian Mulligan’s villainous Don Pizarro’s curtain call deserves the humorous booing for his convincing villain-in-a-lounge-suit portrayal – and the enthusiastic applause for his singing. The rich, warm bass-baritone of David Howes hits the right dramatic and musical note as the noble and dignified Don Fernando who restores freedom, crushing Pizarro’s evil regime.
At the heart of the whole piece is Campbell Leonore. Her deeply internalised performance is spellbinding, colouring the emotional complexity of ‘Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?’ ending in her determination to free Florestan. It is a tribute to Shiel’s conducting and Comyn’s taut direction that no applause is invited at the end of arias or set pieces, the audience restraint being a compliment in itself.
The haunting Prisoners’ Chorus at the close of Act l, O Welche Lust, as they emerge briefly from the gloom of the prison into the heavenly light of day is deeply affecting and lays the foundation for the final chorus and ensemble, proclaiming the triumph of freedom and light over the darkness of oppression. It brings inevitably to mind the jubilant chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth (Choral) Symphony with its tumultuous refrain that all people will live as one in peaceful co-existence.
Explanatory dialogue is spoken in English while the rest is sung in the original German, with surtitles. Some judicious editing of text, such as Pizarro’s demise, which can be clumsy and weaken the build up to the conclusion, has helped the impetus towards the great climactic final scene, without losing anything of consequence.
Beethoven’s hope that tyranny and oppression will be swept away by the forces of freedom and goodness, is essentially his political manifesto. Designer Francis O’Connor’s use of figure-fitting black uniforms with leather boots and truncheons would be recognised by Alexei Navalny and his supporters, just as the orange prison suits evoke Guantanamo. While the suggestion is definite, it is not laboured and there is no attempt to impose a particular location or political context.
It is impossible not to be moved, both by the quality of this production and its relevance to today’s world. While Beethoven would be dismayed that his vision for mankind is no nearer to achievement today than when he wrote Fidelio more than two hundred years ago, it is certain that he would greatly approve the musical excellence and political clarity of this production.
Fergus Shiel and the Irish National Opera Orchestra are on top form as Fidelio continues at the Gaiety on November 9th, 10th, 12th and 13th.
Photos by Pat Redmond