Fidelio - Nationaltheater Munich, 8 July 2011
Balloon-bedecked crash barriers split Max-Joseph-Platz in two on Friday night. On one side, operagoers in satin and stilettos shuffled through a narrow gap in the barriers to reach the Nationaltheater. Settling down on picnic blankets over the rest of the large square were the somewhat less glamorous audience for the free outdoors live screening of the evening's opera.
With thunderstorms forecast, I was glad to be watching from the comfort of the opera house (even more so three hours later as the rain sheeted down in fire-hose volumes). When I got there, half an hour before the start, the square was already packed (the Staatsoper estimate 10,000 turned up). A further 100,000-plus around the world watched the live internet stream.
So why did the Bavarian State Opera pick this particular show to display its wares to the world? Well, for a start it features Jonas Kaufmann, a big draw in last year's free screening of Tosca, too. But mainly I think because Calixto Bieito's production seems made for the screen. A colossal climbing-frame maze fills the stage from top to bottom, like a real-life video game. There are two layers - the front one is static and the one at the rear shifts slowly from side to side.
At least that's what you see live in the theatre. On a screen, with the added benefit of clever lighting, it looks as if the whole apparatus is continually shifting and transforming. Actors dash through its passages while the overture plays, retracing their steps, unable to escape, like an exploded version of Cube.
It's not just scenery-as-star, atmospheric decoration. The set, unlike Lepage's Ring technomonster, is integral to the production concept. For the second act, it tips slowly backward so that floors become walls. The actors, denied their frame, are suspended above it, confined only by their flying harnesses.
Bieito's notion seems to be that everyone is imprisoned in some way. He's replaced the opera's standard (and admittedly tedious) spoken bits with quotations from Borges on the same theme. These are monologues, inward and reflective. They're not addressed to other characters, as the originals are, and they don't advance the narrative. A lot of the opera's story was carried in these recitative-like dialogues. Once they disappear the narrative line is fractured. But the remaining, sung, lines are mostly non-specific enough to lend themselves to Bieito's approach. We are left without a monolithic 'story'. What remains is more a collection of personal experiences and multiple points of view - as mirrored precisely, in musical terms, in the opera's great vocal ensembles.
That's both the strength and the weakness of the production. It's hard to relate to the characters when they don't relate to each other in a narrative sense. When Bieito does bring them together, it's anyone's guess what's going on, because there's the dramatic trajectory which might explain their actions is limited. Whether this is intentional or not is hard to say. Marzelline's a bit slutty, Jacquino's a bit rapey, Rocco is venal, Pizzaro nasty - but these remain no more than characteristics.
Florestan seems more like a psychiatric patient than a political prisoner, and quite content with his captivity. Rocco has to chloroform him and help Leonore to drag him away. She is ecstatic when she discovered Florestan has taped his Borges monologue on a teeny recorder - but who knows why.
The ending works well. Bieito exposes its arbitrariness by making Don Fernando a replica of Heath Ledger's Dark Knight Joker - well, why not? - who sings from the balcony. He shoots Florestan, who dies then rises again. Is death the only release from our individual prisons?
All that may make it sound like an unsatisfying experience, but strangely, it wasn't. It was like watching an unfamiliar opera in a language you don't speak without the benefit of a translation. For long stretches of the evening I frankly hadn't a clue either what was meant to be going on, or indeed if anything was going on at all, but the action, in the moment, melds with the music. If some moments (the Prisoners' Chorus is one) lose their conventional impact, we are forced to examine others more closely.
In Jonas Kaufmann's performance there was no trace of the various illnesses that have bugged him over the last couple of years. In fact I can't recall ever having heard him sing better. The throaty mannerisms he employed to sing through his respiratory problems last year were totally gone. His opening "Gott" was a perfectly calibrated crescendo, and his bronzed, baritonal colouring sustained from top to bottom. Let's hope he can sustain this glorious sound for this week's Toscas at Covent Garden.
Anja Kampe's intense Leonore was sometimes vocally wayward, but always moving, carrying the burden of what story line there was. Wolfgang Koch as Pizzaro and Hans Josef Selig as Rocco impressed too.
In the pit, the ever-competent Adam Fischer substituted for Fabio Luisi, though we weren't told why. His conducting was efficient if not revelatory, but the most haunting musical moment came not from the orchestra but a string quartet. Suspended above the stage in cages, they performed part of the molto adagio from Op.132 in the pre-finale spot where you often hear a Leonore overture inserted instead. In place of rousing celebration, there was a moment of stillness that made the exuberation of the finale both joyful and absurd.