The overture which Beethoven finally fixed on for Fidelio, discarding previous attempts, is an understated creation subtly foreshadowing what is to come. Why has Calixto Bieito replaced it with its very much longer predecessor, a big symphonic event which puts all the opera's goods in the window? Presumably because he wants to do the same with his.
The curtain rises on a scaffolding of neon tubes and Perspex planes, a modish art-installation project by Rebecca Ringst. We're given a steer on the 'concept' thanks to Leonore (Emma Bell) muttering a poetic fragment by Borges, to the effect that this is a labyrinth with no escape. While Edward Gardner whips the orchestra through the 15-minute overture, we watch dozens of 'prisoners' crawling into the labyrinth then desperately trying to get out.
When the drama gets going, the characters materialise from nowhere, and exist in no place, but since all are top-notch singer-actors their musical interactions acquire powerful momentum. While Sarah Tynan's Marzelline is ravishingly sung and Adrian Dwyer's Jaquino has a low-life resonance, James Creswell's miserly Rocco is compelling, and Emma Bell commands the stage with ineffable grace: as a result, the great cross-purpose quartet works beautifully. Philip Horst's prison-governor Don Pizarro makes a thunderous vocal entrance, but when he starts carving gashes in his forearms you wonder what morbid-psychology book Bieito has been reading. Bell and Creswell play off each other vividly, however, and the climactic moment of the first act – as the prisoners are released into the daylight – is magnificently sung.
Fussy direction completely neutralises what should be the wonderful opening moment of Act Two, when Florestan (Stuart Skelton, with a tone of gleaming warmth) sings up from his dungeon, and the ensuing scene of recognition and fight-back is clumsy in the extreme. Then comes a genuinely magical coup de theatre which I won't reveal, followed by a finale with a less successful coup which leaves that original Borgesian concept in tatters. Suffice to say that the 'prisoners' deliver their farewell chorus holding up placards saying 'Free'.
In strictly musical terms, this shows ENO in fine form, but the net result of Bieito's patchy production is a frivolous travesty of this great opera, and its still-relevant message. Every generation remakes the classics in its own image, but if, like Bieito, you define 'prisoners' as including everyone who works in an open-plan office, you diss the sufferings of today's real Florestans in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Siberia.