Fidelio - Royal Opera House, 29 March 2011 (first night)
Nina Stemme is the Hilary Swank of opera. She nailed the manly look; she even nailed the speaking voice for Leonore's first words. If it hadn't been for the giveaway Scandi accent, I'd never have guessed. The illusion evaporated only when she began to sing. This was her first stage appearance in the role of Leonore, which fits her dark, gleaming soprano like a glove.
Jurgen Flimm's inert production doesn't take the role (or indeed the whole opera) anywhere, but Stemme had clearly done her own homework. When it first turned up at Covent Garden, Karita Mattila's Leonore was a bold, idealistic freedom fighter. Stemme tones down the politics and presents a loyal and faithful wife who'd go to any lengths to get her beloved husband back.
Vocally, it's almost too easy for her. Most of the cast had problems with blocking that strands them upstage, fighting a losing battle with the orchestra. For Stemme's huge voice it was nothing.
She's the main reason to catch this first (and hopefully last) revival of the ghastly ex-Met Fidelio, with its cliched chair flinging and flower tossing, its depressing '40s look and its bizarre refusal to even contemplate the political implications of the work. A few hot shirtless prisoners might have livened things up, but Flimm misses the target and gives us bewildered nursing home escapees instead.
The rest of the cast is creditable without being show-stopping. Rocco in many ways is the most frightening character in the opera, an ordinary, compassionate man who lacks the courage to stand up to what's wrong - and isn't that the story of the 21st century? Kurt Rydl acknowledged the conflicts in his complex, if vocally wobbly portrayal.
The production makes Pizarro too suave to be scary, but John Wegner does a decent job. The imposing Willard White is one of the rare few with the gravitas to make a great Don Fernando. He was in excellent voice, impossible to fault. Elizabeth Watts, in her main stage debut, made a pert and enchantingly sung Marzelline, perhaps too self-regarding to convince of her infatuation with Leonore. Endrik Wottrich's Florestan was the only survivor from the last run, so it was odd that he looked as if he'd been thrown on stage without any rehearsal whatsoever. He began well enough but once again his tightly-wound tenor failed to break free when the music demanded it.
With Kirill Petrenko dropping out at the last minute, Mark Elder, normally meticulous in preparation, had little time to rehearse the orchestra. It showed. Not just in the numerous slips between stage and pit, but in the turgid, low-risk approach. He turned up the tension effectively enough for Florestan's dramatic liberation, but when the Prisoners' Chorus fails to tug at the heartstrings, then something is not quite right.