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Beethoven’s Only Opera, Fidelio, at the Royal Opera House.
The hottest ticket in town this year – and I got one, thanks (probably) to Friday Rush! Why has this opera been such a draw? Well, partly at least because the hero, Florestan, was to be played by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Described by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times as ‘The greatest tenor of today’, Kaufmann is something of a living legend right now.
Lise Davidsen, who plays his wife Leonore, is another big draw. She’s stunning, statuesque (nearly 6’2) and just 33 years old. From Stokke in Norway, she started singing at the age of 15 and shot to fame in 2015 when she won three awards in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition; the first prize for female singer, the Birgit Nilsson Prize and the Rolex-sponsored audience prize. This is her debut in the role.
It’s a new production too, directed by Tobias Kratzer. Florestan is a political prisoner and Leonore disguises herself as a prison guard (Fidelio) in order to rescue him. Written at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was first performed at the Theater an der Wien on 20 November 1805. At the time Europe was in political turmoil, Vienna was under French military occupation, and most of the audience were French military officers. The underlying theme of a struggle for liberty and justice reflects the political movements in Europe and the story, of personal sacrifice and heroism, reflects Beethoven’s own outlook.
The new staging by Tobias Kratzer aims to bring together the reality of the French Revolutionary ‘Terror’ with our own time – to provide a message of shared humanity. Many of the insights, into principled action versus abuse of power, for example, are as relevant today as they were in 1805. Perhaps for that reason, the first Act of the opera has a historic setting, while the second act, in the jail, is contemporised and set with an onlooking audience in modern dress, while the main characters stay in historical costume.
Conducted by the Royal Opera House music director Sir Antonio Pappano, this production sold out in minutes – even before tickets were on sale to the general public. Press tickets were, understandably, very limited so I resorted to Friday Rush again to see if I could book for today’s premiere. I failed with that, but as is often the case, after the wave of Friday Rush tickets there are often returns. Friday Rush is one of the best opportunity to get a reasonably priced ticket – there are tickets for the rear amphitheatre and standing at Balcony level which should be affordable – and for the Stalls Circle which are rather more expensive.
As it happens, Jonas Kaufmann has been unwell – and although he braved the first night, in the production I saw, he was replaced by a very able David Butt Phillips. The stunning Lise Davidsen sang beautifully, with demonstrable power and yet with a sensitivity that held the audience enraptured. Marzelline, played by Amanda Forsythe was coquettish and flirtatious while her father, Rocco, played by Georg Zeppenfeld was convincingly characterised. Simon Neal managed to portray an evil Don Pizarro without lapsing into pantomime and Egil Silins’ Don Fernando was beautifully controlled and powerful. The Chorus, particularly in the Second Act, sang superbly and the orchestra, under the baton of Antonio Pappano was tight and well balanced.
The outstanding star of the show though was Lise Davidsen and it reinforced how important the role of Fidelio/Leonora is in the opera.
The production worked well – despite the discontinuity of time. The second act can be challenging visually, set in the bowels of a prison. Kratzer’s staging brought light and hope to the action – and the additional dialogue help make sense of a libretto which can challenge a contemporary audience.
It’s 250 years since the composer’s birth in Bonn. So, what better way to celebrate than a night at the opera. If you can’t make it, then there’s a live screening at cinemas on 17th March
Fidelio is sung in German with English surtitles.
Performances on 3, 6, 9, 13, 17 March at 7:30 pm. There are also live cinema screenings across London and worldwide on 17th March.
Royal Opera House
Bow Street, London,