The Royal Opera took a faltering step towards rectifying its recent neglect of the greatest opera written between The Magic Flute and Die Walküre. Maybe it should not have bothered. Beethoven's only opera (unless we count Leonore as a separate work) has a number of special characteristics. Amongst those we should include its symphonic stature, its concern with the (bourgeois?) idea of freedom, political and metaphysical, and the taxing demands it places upon the singers. Any production that does not rise to a certain level in these terms - and perhaps others too - will fail.
Let us take the singers first. There was relative success here, or at least not abject failure. The production had been trailed as something of a vehicle for Karita Mattila. This did not augur well, for though one needs a great artist in this part, and not only in this part, Fidelio is not - thank God - in any sense a 'singer's opera'. Mattila was very good, if hardly the equal of so many of the great singers of the past who have taken on the role: Sena Jurinac, Martha Mödl, Christa Ludwig, et al., or even Christine Brewer, in Sir Colin Davis's truly sublime concert performance last year with the London Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless, Mattila was successful in conveying the transformation from 'boy' to woman, which many singers appear simply to ignore. Endrik Wottrich was impressive as Florestan; Bayreuth's faith in him as the latest Heldentenor-hope did not seem misplaced. The cruel vocal demands were negotiated, not with ease, for that would negate the crucial element of struggle, but in a fashion that brought dramatic truth to his progression from prison cell to freedom. Eric Halfvarson was adequate, if hardly startling, as Rocco: he could sing the notes, but the voice wanted a certain bloom. The smaller roles were not an embarrassment, although only Robert Lloyd (as Don Fernando) proved memorable. Ailish Tynan was unnecessarily 'girlish' as Marzelline, though this may have been the fault of the production, about which more below. Delivery of the spoken dialogue varied in quality, but at its worst sounded retarded in every sense of the word. A German language coach was credited; did she not attend to this?
However, Fidelio, as I said, is not a 'singer's opera'. The guiding hand must be that of the conductor. Antonio Pappano proved woefully inadequate. The overture, a great test in itself, was shambolic. What should have set the parameters for the ensuing drama sounded alternately hard-driven - very hard-driven - and sluggish. The opening bars brought the first of the work's many fluffs in one of the horn parts. I gained the impression here that Pappano was attempting to incorporate elements of so-called 'period' practice, not least in terms of the rigid metronomic nature of much, though not all, of this opening. The strings sounded anaemic, and the trumpets - so crucial in this of all works - either were natural, or were perversely made to sound as if they were. They stood out like proverbial sore thumbs, joined by unfortunate 'period-style' kettledrums. Sir Charles Mackerras would doubtless have presented such an allegedly 'historically-informed' version, yet it would have been informed by a sense of drama and it would have possessed some degree of conceptual integrity. However, Pappano seemed tugged in another, incompatible direction, pulling certain passages around for no apparent reason. This ended up sounding like a caricature of Sir Simon Rattle's Beethoven. Sadly, the overture did set the parameters for much of the rest of the work, but not as it should have done. There was no sense of any structural understanding. Beethoven's great paragraphs went for nothing, replaced by a disjointed series of scenes, as if - and I suspect this may be the nub of the matter - this were a nineteenth-century Italian opera. (I am not sure that it would even pass muster in Verdi, but it certainly does not in Beethoven.)
The second act was better on the whole. Indeed after the first scene, the strings sounded in somewhat better form, though never as they would have done for Bernard Haitink or Davis (nor, indeed, as they had done for Rattle in his superb account of Pelléas at the beginning of the month). I wondered whether Pappano had borrowed Leonard Bernstein's idea of orchestral expansion to convey the contrast between early domesticity and subsequent profundity. If so, it did not really come off. The orchestra, as I said, sounded better, but hardly heroic; nor was there any sense of a great and necessary straining towards the final goal, simply a further collection of various 'numbers'. There were moments of excitement - more for the conductor than for me, I should add - but these simply became frenetic. Where Toscanini might well have been guilty of driving the orchestra too hard, he at least would have exerted his fabled iron control. Here orchestra and singers simply drifted apart, catastrophically so in the final chorus. Most disturbing of all was that it was not entirely clear whether Pappano had even noticed.
So the idea of freedom which underpins this noble work was barely realised at all. Beethoven stands as the archetypal goal-oriented composer. If one were to wish to 'subvert' this - as, for instance, Birtwistle has done explicitly, in much of his œuvre - it ought to be done purposively, not out of incompetence. A series of errors and misconceptions does not make a work paratactic. It was not a shortcoming of the first order that there had been superior interpreters of the staged roles in the past, but it did matter that this idea was lacking. When the trumpet is heard in Florestan's cell, it should stand for far more than the arrival of the Minister; it should have resonances historical and conceptual which elevate Fidelio to the ranks of the greatest expressions of the human spirit. Jürgen Flimm's production did not help in this respect at all. A characteristic of his production 'style' appears to be theatrical hyper-activity. Characters must always be preoccupied with unnecessary 'business'. (A previous example that immediately springs to mind is irritating and trivialising business with a shredding machine during Wotan's Act II Walküre monologue from Flimm's often bizarre Bayreuth Ring.) Sometimes this could be worse than merely distracting, especially when it involved already hard-pressed singers having to shout, to run about, to throw objects at one another... What neither director nor conductor seemed to have realised is that this is not a work 'about' the characters, at least not primarily. They had fallen into precisely the same trap as so many of the still-surprising number of Fidelio's detractors, who would complain that the characters are not dramatically credible. They are, as it happens, albeit not on a tediously realistic level, but that is not the point here. What is the point is that the work is about an idea, certainly the most glorious idea, in its pristine form, the early European bourgeoisie was able to formulate. Fidelio is the musical moment of its Schillerian instantiation. This production, sadly, was not.