As part of their Beethoven year, APO performed his only opera, Fidelio. I’ll start by saying that it was the best production of Fidelio I’ve ever seen.
Beethoven’s Fidelio has had a very long and painful compositional history. The opera began life as ‘Leonore’ which had its premiere in 1805 as a three-act version. It had the great misfortune to premiere in Vienna during a French military occupation of the city, as French military officers were the majority of the audience, and they weren’t particularly interested in German opera, it didn’t do well. It was subsequently revised in to a two-act version in 1806, which did well but more performances were constrained due to disagreements between Beethoven and the theatre management. In 1814 it was revised more thoroughly again, this time as Fidelio, becaming an immediate success and has stayed in rep ever since.
Set in Seville in the late 18th century, a man called Florestan has been jailed by his political rival Don Pizarro, who spreads rumours that Florestan is dead. Two years after this false imprisonment, the opera begins. Florestan’s wife Leonore believes her husband is still alive so she pretends to be a man called Fidelio and gets a job in the jail, hoping to be able to go to the most restricted area, and search for her husband. There are problems along the way including the jailer Rocco, who is conflicted between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing, his daughter Marzelline who falls in love with ‘Fidelio’ and the villain – Don Pizarro. Incredibly for an opera, this one actually has a happy ending, with Leonore saving her husband, Rocco choosing to do the right thing, and Pizarro getting punished. Whilst this opera is over 200 years old, its themes of moral conflict and political machinations are just as relevant now as they were when this was written.
I have seen a few productions of this opera live and I’ve never seen it produced in a really satisfying manner, until now. Director Jacqueline Coats has worked out how to really do justice by this opera, making it a semi-staged production, with the orchestra still front and centre but utilising all of the performance space both in front of, and behind the orchestra. By not trying to set it in a particular period and by making Rocco the narrator throughout the piece, it makes this opera exciting, invigorating, interesting, and probably most importantly of all, being faithful to the story and letting that lead.
The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by their music director Giordano Bellincampi were fabulous. Bellincampi really gave the music it’s due, filling the Auckland Town Hall with such precision and focus, the only slight downside was at a couple of points the music was drowning out some of the singers, but in general, the orchestra were exquisite interpreters of Beethoven.
The cast was an embarrassment of riches, Kirstin Sharpin was a wonderful Leonore/ Fidelio, her Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? from Act 1 was a particular highlight and showed off her remarkable dexterity and skill. Simon O’Neill as Florestan floored the audience from his first Gott at the beginning of Act 2, he was a perfect Florestan, every action, every syllable surged with power and prowess. What I really appreciated from both of them, and in fact everyone on stage, was how much they put in to it, they didn’t just sing, they acted, they really went to those roles and it showed, the audience were gripped, and that can be a pretty hard thing to do with not only this opera in particular, but with a concert production, but this just worked. Paul Whelan had one of the hardest jobs on stage, performing as the morally conflicted jailer Rocco (in German) and narrating throughout the opera (in English), and he did both brilliantly, there was a warmth there in his performance that really embodied the struggles he was facing.
The rest of the cast were great as well, particularly Natasha Wilson as Marzelline, the daughter of Rocco and in love with Fidelio. Wilson had a fantastic voice and her innocence, her love for Fidelio in Act 1 was beautifully done and when it was revealed in the finale of Act 2 that Fidelio was really Leonore, her face, the despair, the shock, it was powerful, I really felt for her, and for that role, that’s very rare.
This was a triumphant production of Fidelio with a phenomenal cast and orchestra, and the best produced version of this opera I have ever seen, APO do opera fantastically and I for one am already counting down for their next one. An utter triumph.