Beethoven Fidelio, Garsington Opera, London

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The Independent Culture

When Leonora asks Rocco to allow the prisoners out of their cells and into the garden in the first act of Beethoven’s Fidelio, the beauty of the Garsington Manor setting comes into its own like a tantalising mirage.

But not even the distinguished veteran director John Cox can persuade the sun to shine on cue and the weather remained resolutely inclement at precisely the moment where blue sky should dispel the clouds to herald Beethoven’s inspirational prisoners chorus. Opera and the elements do not always mix obligingly.

Still, it was cold enough (and how) to suggest the subterranean depths of Florestan’s cell and Gary McCann’s weathered steel setting cleverly suggested the many levels above and below ground with cistern covers and cross-sectioned tunnelling contrasting dramatically with a single look-out turret from which became a kind of pulpit for governor Don Pizarro’s monstrous sermons. As played by a pigtailed and leather coated Sergei Leiferkus (quite a catch for Garsington, even at this stage of his career) with his celebrated vocal snarl and sibilance, the villainy of the piece was in sure hands.

It was not such a good night for costumes and wigs. The prisoners, looking suspiciously like “the night of the living dead”, sang a lot better than they looked. But there were the usual details that make John Cox such a good observer of opera, not least the reappearance of Don Pizarro at the climax of the opera as a reminder that evil is everywhere and that the evil-doers will always go forth and multiply.

This was Garsington’s first Fidelio and Douglas Boyd was entrusted musical responsibility. It was an odd mix of the period informed – lean, wiry, with sharp inner voices (nice forward woodwinds) but lacking weight at the lower end - and the haltingly old fashioned with some rather awkward accommodations of breathing space for singers and a final chorus which didn’t quite take flight.

In the heroic double of Fidelio/Leonora Rebecca von Lipinski had the courage and resilience at the top and bottom of the voice (the voice really rings above the stave) but the sustained benevolence of her aria was less successful. Peter Wedd (Florestan) has a grainy vibrato-heavy quality which curdles under pressure, but no one could doubt his intensity. Frode Olsen’s Rocco was another wig victim whose superimposed “greyness” did nothing to conceal the lack of gravitas in the voice.

Not quite sure what to make of the allegorical Greek goddesses at the close but the distribution of blankets for the prisoners while the audience perished was a neat reversal.