Sunday, 19 September 2010

Fidelio - WMC 17th of September 2010

Ah...the plaintive call of seagulls, the breeze coming off the bay playing my hair like an ethereal harpist, the sound of stomp-stomp-stomp-bugger-bugger-bugger-slop-slop-slop as I raced across the bridge towards the Armadillo, knocking grannies, children and mimes all to the floor meant only three things. It was the opening night of WNO's 2010 / 11 season, I was late...and I was dribbling.

I know what's crossing your mind my dear readers – were the multiple grazed knees and hands caused by your hirsute host worth it? Did Fid give me some elio? Did I forget about the curling tongs I'd left on? Were my toes-a-tapping and my hips-a-grooving, giving the complete stranger next to me the wrong idea who swapped with her burly beau after the interval?

That last bit probably gives the answer away.

Meistersinger was always going to be an impossible act to follow, and while the professional reviews (when they come out) may not be as ecstatic for Fidelio the effect on this man with hair was enough to put some zing in my locks. The reasons for this are three fold, and happy that I've decided on the best way to go about this review I'll carry on with...

Fold one – The production

Dominated by separate rows of mobile prison bars, which could be joined to make a cage, to look at Giuseppe Frigeni’s Fidelio is the sombre coloured affair you’d expect of a prison set story. The sets are minimal, although not lacking in detail. From my vantage point the stage floor had an architectural map of the prison drawn on it that played nicely with a bit of spotlight action towards the end of the first act between Rocco and Pizarro's knocking off Florestan discussion scene. The costumes too, by Amélie Haas, add little in the way of hope with colours, in the main, subdued and Pizarro wearing a Gestapo style leather trench coat and black leather gloves as befits his bad boy image – though things did get confusing for some audience members at the curtain call when they booed Fernando who happened to be wearing similar garb.

Whether you take to the production depends on how much you’re prepared to buy into Frigeni’s approach to direction. Unlike a large number of directors he comes to opera not as a theatre director but as a dance director and there was certainly a sense of stylised chorographical movement on show that evoked in me a sense of a dream like state gone bad with characters sometimes adopting exaggerated poses.

In the main I enjoyed his approach as the staccato nature of the first act, despite its gorgeous music, deters a naturalistic flow to the drama . However, there were one or two occasions where I felt more rational direction wouldn't have gone amiss. A slightly longer pause between O wär' ich schon and Mir ist so wunderbar would have helped to pause the conveyor belt of tunes hitting my ears and give audience members, unused to the story, an extra bit of time to clue into the relationships between the dudes and dudettes on the stage and help glue the action together more securely. Similarly I would have liked Pizarro and Leonore to have been packing a pointy weapon and some heat between them when things began to get a bit dicey in the dungeon.

Fold two – The performances onstage

There seems to have been a run of debut roles at WNO in recent productions and Fidelio was another night for some young, and not so young singers, to make their role debuts. As far as I could work out the debutants were Scottish soprano Lisa Milne as Leonore, and veteran Welsh tenor Dennis O'Neill as Florestan – though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that one or two others were taking their characters out into public for the first time (due to ages rather than quality of performance).

As the heart and soul of the work Leonore was well served by Milne, employing her light, yet strong, soprano (it makes sense believe me) to good effect and her performance gained in authority as the evening wore on. If there was one thing that Milne lacked on the evening it was a greater presence in her lower register, but this is only a small detraction from what was a very enjoyable and promising debut.

As Florestan O'Neill was given the double-edged sword of having to impress with half the opera already gone and with a demanding aria that requires lungpower set at Desperation Mark 10 from the get-go. Thundering out the opening of Gott, welch Dunkel hier! he succeeded in conveying the desolation of his character and navigated the remainder of the aria with sure footedness. I've been debating whether or not to include the next observation but as I value honesty over empty platitudes I've decided to go with it. As impressive a performance as he gave (and believe me, it was a good performance) on one or two occasions I felt a younger O'Neill would have grasped the aria with more comfortable passion, as the Verdi in his voice is undoubtedly well suited to the role.

Opera de Bordeaux Fidelio photo by Frédéric Desmesure Canvas Management

So what of the remainder of the cast?

Deserving of his applause at the curtain call Clive Bayley was at home in Rocco's skin, giving a confident performance as the jailer. As his daughter, Marzelline, Elizabeth Donovan was my personal favourite on the night. A bright colourful soprano she was a perfect fit for her role. As her would be wooer Robin Tritschler looks the part, unfortunately his elegant voice failed to reach me through the orchestra, a shame as he possesses an intelligent instrument – I think he'll be more suited to the role of Ferrando when he returns in Cosi later in the season. Robert Hayward (Pizarro) was in a similar position as O'Neill with his opening aria and he certainly went for it like a man possessed. A difficult role to sing, as it demands Psycho Singing throughout, he managed to carry off the role and was suitably booed at the curtain call – I would have liked a little bit more relaxation in his voice but I think the tempo employed made this a challenging effect to achieve. A special mention also for the ensemble singing as it really hits the mark.

And the chorus? I have to admit that their O welche Lust was slightly disappointing with their normal cohesion off by an inch or so with individual voices poking through, but come the closing chorusfest I was tingling and feeling the urge to jump up and join in, which would have been a disaster for everyone involved, so normal service was resumed. On a closing note it was pleasing to see the first and second prisoners sung assuredly by chorus members Simon Curtis and Stephen Wells.

Fold three – The performances offstage

Ugh. I've doggy paddled like crazy so far, and now I'm at the Niagara Falls of my reviewing – the orchestra and conductor. Deep breath and off I go...

After a slightly shaky beginning I felt the orchestra found their stride soon thereafter. Lothar Koenigs drove the orchestra forwards at a quick tempo that paid off in the dramatic passages, although I felt that on a small number of occasions the singers were being asked to keep to an uncomfortable pace. Despite my slight reservations about the tempi I would take Koenigs' approach over a slower one as the beauty of Beethoven's score loses its sublime nature when slowed to walking pace. And in case anyone is thinking (if you're still with me that is) that Koenigs doesn't allow for a slowing of the tempo when needed he does, most of the time.

So for a quick recap – a few first night glitches aside it was a hugely satisfying evening as evidenced by the audience reaction (sorry burly beau for elbowing you), and I'm looking forward to catching a later performance. The production may not float everyone's boat but then I doubt there's been a production of Fidelio that has. Usually the key to any successful performance, in my eyes, is if I'm humming bits and pieces the following morning. Not this time. The marker for me was would I be able to forget my numbed face (with a hint of pain) from a visit to the dentist in the late afternoon (slobbery jaw reference)? By the end of the night the answer was a resounding yes, and if you're wondering, I was also humming tunes when I woke the following morning.

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