Fidelio, Royal Opera House

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The Independent Culture

The Prisoners’ Chorus in ‘Fidelio’ is one of the great moments in opera. After years in the dark, the grey-faced multitude are suddenly released from their cells and stumble out into the light.

The orchestra has glowingly prepared us for this moment, and the great choral shout which ensues - ‘Oh what joy!’ - comes like the sun bursting through clouds. The prisoners are vividly characterised, with one warning the others to keep quiet, as the menacing shades could as easily engulf them once more: this is as clear a musical evocation of what being ‘disappeared’ means – think Argentina in the Eighties, or the Middle East now – as one could imagine.

Yet in Jurgen Flimm’s production this scene goes for nothing. The chorus starts some time after the men have been released, and they just sing casually as they mill around; there’s no excitement, no build-up of power, no sense of the earth having disgorged them as there was in Graham Vick’s ENO production.

Moreover, if there is one moment where the central relationship in this drama reaches its apogee, it’s when Leonore and her husband Florestan are reunited in the latter’s prison cell, after evading seemingly certain death. Beethoven’s music for their ecstatic duet implies its own stage directions, but Flimm has other ideas: rather than embracing, his couple express their delight without looking at each other, and from opposite ends of the stage.

Heaven knows why this theatrically inert show was imported from the New York Met. Act One unfolds in an unvaryingly hard light, with the family drama dwarfed by the barn-like prison; Act Two, in the dungeons below, has moments of unintentional comedy; the finale, in which the liberated men are reunited with their wives and children, comes across like a revivalist rally. To make any sense of this story, you must choose either the political route, or the personal one, but Flimm chooses neither.

On the first night the orchestra was off-colour, but we got some fine singing. Endrik Wottrich’s Florestan was under-powered, but Nina Stemme gave us a wonderfully burnished performance as Leonore, with Kurt Rydl and Elizabeth Watts perfectly embodying Rocco and Marzelline, and Willard White type-cast as the benign deus ex machina.