Fidelio - Coliseum, 1 October 2013
A current Twitter meme invites you to #AddaWordRuinanOpera. At this stage of the season it seems that prefacing any title with the word ENO's would work.
I first saw this Calixto Bieito production a couple of years ago in Munich, where it debuted, with a starry Kaufmann-led cast and sterling conducting from Adam Fischer.
ENO's revival is lower-division. Their budget stretches to fewer prisoners, and I don't think they managed to squeeze the exact Munich set and lighting on to the Coliseum stage - the effect at any rate is less Cube and more climbing frame.
Bieito himself was largely absent while he masterminded his brand-new Die Soldaten in Zurich, leaving the ENO work mostly to assistants. ENO's past claim that they never contracted him is perhaps not so odd as it first seemed. His absence manifests itself in a sort of general energy shortage and a tendency to fall back on conventional interpretations.
With nothing more provocative than a capacious pair of underpants on show, Bieito's vandalism is largely verbal. He removes some of the clumsy original dialogue and interpolates elegant and fitting poetry in its place. A crime according to some - but hardly more transgressive than singing the whole thing in English. We get the third Leonore overture at the start, and its regular place towards the end, a string quartet. It's one of those updates that doesn't mesh entirely with the libretto, and as in Munich, I was puzzled from time to time. But Bieito's central message - we are all prisoners - is crystal clear.
This wasn't the first night, so I didn't get to see Stuart Skelton's Florestan, the main attraction according to most reports. Taking his place was Bryan Register, an American tenor whose wide vibrato detracts from a big, ringing voice. Emma Bell sings with an intensity that suits Bieito's production, and a slight unsteadiness lent her Leonore an edge. James Creswell made a solid Rocco.
It's often said that Fidelio is impossible to get right - but it's also impossible to get totally wrong. The music is too resilient for that. Ed Gardner came as close as I've heard to disaster. He deserves some credit I suppose for attempting a 'classical' style, but neither he nor the orchestra were up to it. Clipped phrasing exposed shoddy playing. Tempi were all over the place, the galloped-through overture being the worst example. Worst, there was no sense of any overriding vision of the work as a whole. When the Heath Quartet descended in cages from the flies playing the beautiful Adagio from Op.132, my tears were due as much to relief as anything else.
production photos (above) Tristram Kenton
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com