Fidelio - Royal Opera House, 26 May 2007
yes it's really Karita Mattila
As I wasn't lucky enough to be in the centre stalls for this matinee premiere, I missed a lot of the action. Most of the the first act is played almost in the wings or right at the back of the set. I was unlucky enough to be sitting (expensively, mind) on the right side, so I had no idea the set on that side incorporated a suite of prison cells key to the action until I was told so at the interval by a friend who happened to have been sitting on the left. He in his turn was unhappy he'd missed most of the Fidelio/Rocco/Marzelline scenes which took place on the left. And there was enough taking place deep or high on stage to make the upper levels a poor choice too. Isn't somebody supposed to check out sightlines before they put shows out? Even simply narrowing the set would have helped.
Perhaps spreading the action around the stage was intended to compensate for the visual side of the production being static, unimaginative and tediously literal. The opportunity offered by the dramatic difficulties of the second act prison cell scene, supposedly too dark for Florestan to recognise Leonore, is partially met by the clever choice of a raised trapdoor to separate Leonore and Florestan. Underlighting the scene to a point where the audience can't see what's happening is a pointless additional touch.
This production comes from the Met where its lack of corsets and pantaloons apparently riled the traditionalists. Unfortunately the indeterminate '40's-ish dress code is the only modern thing about it. (Click here for more information if you'd like to know about the Royal Opera House's own dress code). Sidestepping the gifted opportunity to pursue any of the broader political themes in the work, producer Flimm gowns his perky prisoners in sparkling white, as if they'd popped out from a health farm, and a robust Florestan is tethered in his immaculate cell with nothing more substantial than a clothesline. This apolitical approach to Fidelio eventually fails artistically too - not a small part of Beethoven's genius was to ensure that this is the only approach which can glue its disparate elements together. Flimm leaves us with a series of tableaux and demi-formed inexplicably-motivated characters.
At least there are some high points on the musical side. The best was Karita Mattila's Leonore, splendidly bold and impassioned, not to mention bravely deglamourised. It's a production worth seeing for her alone. Ailish Tynan's beautiful voice gave Marzelline just the right amount of sweetness and light, while avoiding a simpering or cloying portrayal. Endrik Wottrich as Florestan struggled to convey any notion of the physical rigours of imprisonment, but delivered sensitively in his clear metallic tone. Eric Halfvarson had bundles of energy but struggled dramatically with Rocco's political/humanitarian awakening. Terje Stensvold's Don Pizarro simply wasn't nasty enough to negotiate the gaping dramaturgical hole in Act I, where his planned murder of Florestan (who, crucially, we haven't met) comes across as the righteous revenge of a wronged man rather than a vicious abuse of power.
Unfortunately, it was clear from the opening bars that the orchestra was on less than top form, with some particularly approximate brass playing, and an uncharacteristically thin tinny sound. A general impression of tiredness, lack of power, and under-rehearsal persisted throughout. To be fair, most of the the second act was a lot more polished than the first, with a fuller sound which suggested that the anaemic timbres of the first may have been intentional - if so, Pappano's aim was completely unclear to me. Things fell apart again in the final chorus though, and if I hadn't been able to see Pappano from my seat, I would have guessed he'd fainted or something.
Maybe I've been spoilt by Glyndebourne's recent terrific Fidelio, and the even better concert version by the LSO last year, but this production simply didn't come up to scratch.