Left - Sarah Crane. Cover - Anke Höppner (far left) and cast
Fidelio is a dark, dour work. We are drawn into the murky shadows, squinting almost to make out the politically persecuted left to rot in their underground hell. Florestan is on death row; his executioner, prison governor Don Pizarro, holds a vengeful grudge against the man for exposing his crimes.
But Florestan’s wife Lenore refuses to give up hope. She disguises herself as a male prison guard; as Fidelio she ventures into the darkness to free her beloved and liberate the prisoners. When revolution comes, it is glorious. The darkness subsides for a joyful chorus of powerfully strong voice and heart.
Ludwig van Beethoven was inspired by the feeling of revolution in France in the late 1700s. He gives us a timeless story of heroism against persecution; undying love driving social liberation. It started life as a three-act opera in 1805, but would be refined to two acts over a difficult development. Such a trial was his first opera, indeed, the German maestro never wrote another.
It remains a challenging work for performers and audiences alike. The lyrical litheness demanded of the German libretto is only matched by Beethoven’s painstaking score. To the audience it can produce a wall of sound; competing motivations delicately interwoven. The narrative exposition and darkness in tone of the first act particularly can be tough going for the uninitiated.
But this production is a contemporarily literate work – literally, with three-dimensional letters strewn across the stage spelling out (in English) the feelings of the protagonists. LOVE becomes HOME. RAGE becomes COURAGE. OPRESSION turns to LIBERATION.
Opera Queensland has imported the design and direction of South African Marthinus Basson, who on the limited canvass of the Conservatorium Theatre paints a simple but affective retelling. It is much less grand than the local company’s previous production of La Traviata at the Lyric Theatre, and unashamedly modern (the mixed themes in the costuming, for no apparent reason, does jar), but the concert-style staging allows some world-class performers to shine.
German-born Anke Höppner obviously wraps her tongue around the Deutsch, and her commanding soprano chords convey the heartbreak and resilience of the opera’s namesake. She is on stage for almost the entire performance, restrained by the buttoned-up prison garb and cropped hair but Lenore’s desperation and determination is palpable. With Spaniard Rafael Soler struck down by winter sickness, local tenor Bradley Daley didn’t let down the opening night crowd with a faultless performance as Florestan. He opens the second act with two wonderful arias: Gott! Welch Dunkel Hier (God! What Darkness Here) and In Des Lebens Frühlingstagen (In The Spring Of Life).
Opera Australia veterans Barry Ryan and Richard Anderson make their Queensland debuts as the villainous Don Pizarro and his prison warden Rocco, respectively. As Rocco’s daughter Marzelline, who unfortunately (but comically) falls for the disguised Lenore, Sarah Crane is a treat, while long-time Opera Queensland bass Peter Axford has suitable gravitas as the King’s Minister. The men of the Opera Queensland chorus relish the rousing freedom ode Oh Welche Lust (Oh What A Joy), which along with the finale is a spine-tingling highlight.
The Queensland Orchestra (under Graham Abbott’s baton) sounds magnificent in the symphony-made space of the Conservatorium, in a production that doesn’t thrill like other operas but certainly draws you in with an inspired new design and rich musical experience.
Opera Queensland presents
by Ludwig van Beethoven
Director/Designer Marthinus Basson
Conductor Graham Abbott
Venue: Conservatorium Theatre, South Bank
Dates: 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 28 and 30 July and 1 August, 2009
Tickets: from $46 (includes qtix booking fee)
Bookings: qtix 136 246 or www.qtix.com.au