No more heroes

Don't expect grand political gestures. For Graham Vick, Fidelio is just the story of a woman who's lost her man.
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The Independent Culture
For a man about to unveil his very first Fidelio, producer Graham Vick appears remarkably composed. Mellow, even. This on the eve of his first run-through. Always a difficult time, a moment of truth. Has it jelled, does it cohere, is it ready for an audience? And Fidelio with all its famous difficulties, expectations. Beethoven's cry for humanity - a universal hymn right up there with the Ninth Symphony. Liberty, fraternity, equality. Aren't you supposed to change the world with this opera?

Vick smiles the smile of a man who believes we've been headed down the wrong road for too long. He's been there - and back - many times, and along the way has enjoyed "some profoundly wonderful experiences". The great post-war Fidelios - Furtwangler, Klemperer - heroic acts in a heroic age. "They were all part of a tradition, a mythology that now encases the piece and makes it almost impossible to find amid the awesome post- war heilige Kunst ("sacred art") perceptions of it. That, plus the hijacking of the piece to political ends..." Fidelio, the human rights opera, the protest opera. Entire companies offering up their chains to the audience, orchestras getting up and walking out before completion of the music, front cloths bearing Beethoven's signature cascading down during the closing bars - and Leonora No 3 portentously inserted before the final scene. "Indefensible. But it's all part of what I'm saying. Inserting this grand and magnificent piece of abstract dramatic music at this point is the ultimate statement - just in case you happen to think that Fidelio is about somebody's wife who goes looking for him..."

It's almost an aside, but smiling that smile again, Vick reminds me - all of us - that Beethoven's preferred title for the opera was Leonora and that only under pressure from the theatre management did he agree to Fidelio, or The triumph of married love. The subtitle was no afterthought. "Seventy or 80 per cent of the title role is about a woman named Leonora hiding inside a man called Fidelio. And given this tricky operatic tradition of 'trouser roles', it's all too easy for it to become a woman playing a man - because that's the nature of our dramatic experience. So there's a danger that the role will come over as fake man, as manly heroism, as heroism being a male attribute, so that in order to be brave a woman must take on a male guise and stand with her legs apart and lift up her face and sing forthrightly because this is a moment about courage and heroism. Whereas, of course, a woman's courage must be her own thing. It's an interesting area to explore in the intimacy of the rehearsal room..."

Intimacy. It's that aspect of Beethoven's opera - the domestic drama at its heart - that Vick believes has been trammelled by the heroic expectations. On the day we met, he'd been working with Kathryn Harries and Anthony Rolfe Johnson on the big reconciliation duet "O namenlose Freude". Big, in the sense of momentous, that is. But no sooner is the ecstasy of the opening page upon us, no sooner have the fires been rekindled for Leonora and Florestan, than the music drops to piano as if to respect their privacy. Time and again, says Vick, Beethoven leads us back to intimacy, to tenderness, to small moments. Why are people puzzled by the lightness, delicacy, transparency of the opening numbers? Why does this gloom traditionally descend with the quartet? Because, says Vick, of Beethoven and all that he has come to represent, because people know what's coming and don't think they've bought a ticket for what they're hearing. "From the first handful of numbers, you could be in for Lortzing, you could be in for a good night out! But that's all part of Beethoven's subtle scheme. The really shocking gear change comes with the arrival of Pizarro. Not before."

So, approach Fidelio as you would an opera by Mozart, says Vick, and you're halfway there. "It's all about finding where it sits and giving honest and due weight to the spoken text, finding the inner-life of those dialogue scenes. You can't coast on the back of Fidelio, you can't get through the dialogue, wait for the next tune, and let it tell you what you're feeling." Which is why he has bided his time to mount his first Fidelio at the Coliseum - in English. And no, he is not intimidated by the size of the house. Don't even suggest that to the man who so successfully staged Figaro there. Creating intimacy in a big space is his speciality. It's attention to detail, clarity, truthfulness that draws an audience in. If something doesn't work, it's because something didn't happen in the rehearsal room.

Vick insists that he relies enormously upon whoever is in that room with him. So casting is not just important, it's a creative issue. And he's earned the right to be choosy. Needless to say, he's got a little list of people he won't work with, people he doesn't feel at ease with: "Because if I feel tight or trapped, then I become a very mediocre director. My role is to help people feel secure and open in a situation where they can relax and take risks... So I too must feel free to scratch my head and admit that I'm at a loss for an idea. I'm decision-led really, so in that sense - though no one who's ever worked with me will believe it for a moment - rather passive. But you better not put that down because I'll be mocked and derided!"

So what does he take into that room with him - besides a strong investigative cast? "A world" - a world in which the piece can naturally sit, which can contain the basic areas of discourse within the piece - and "intuition". Theatre and music have always run parallel in Vick's life. At one time he planned to become a conductor. Inevitably, it colours his work: "You need to be controlled in the broadest sense - you need a sense of the bigger shapes. Your job is to guide and channel responses, to avoid the generalised and the easy..."

Vick despises the generalised and the easy - the vague, the fanciful, the texturally unfounded. The only truth lies with the dramatic context. Vick's finest moments spring directly from that truth. Like the moment in his Royal Opera Die Meistersinger where Beckmesser first hears Walther sing, and for a second or two (in spite of himself) is visibly moved by what he hears. Why - because he's a serious enthusiast, an accomplished Meistersinger, because he knows a good thing when he hears it. But then he must reject it, because (a) it doesn't conform to his preconceptions, and (b) it's plainly a threat to well-laid schemes for his love-life. One tiny moment, so much conveyed.

Likewise the moment in Vick's stunning Eugene Onegin at Glyndebourne - one of those leap-out-of-your-seat moments - where Tatyana empties a basin of water over herself at the climax of the "letter scene". That came out of a long search for a dramatic visual metaphor that would amply convey the young girl's vulnerability, arousal, apprehension, anxiety. At ENO he had her standing before a mirror, unbuttoning her night-dress, looking at her breasts. It was a truthful, if overly "cinematic" image. It didn't quite "tell" on stage. So to that image of sexual vulnerability, he added recklessness and abandon, recalling a moment he once saw in a production of Three Sisters in Hungary where Irina had shockingly emptied a jug of water over herself. In musical terms, this great scene crests inexorably over a series of powerful climaxes. But Vick knows better than to compete with them. His theatrical moment comes after the music has peaked emotionally. It's the subtext of the scene conveyed in a single gesture. It's Tatyana waking up to the first day of the rest of her life.

Vick still manages to live something of a double life in operatic terms. Today, Covent Garden or the Met, tomorrow a community project with his City of Birmingham Touring Opera. That company, he says, defines who he is. Give him an interesting space, a bunch of enthusiastic, open people and a piano, and he's a happy man. It's this romantic notion of sharing, spreading it around - new audiences, innocent audiences. He calls it "the Robin Hood principle". Quite where that leaves Glyndebourne (where he is director of productions) I don't know. But even Glyndebourne can change. And the work's still the thing: continuity in a stable environment makes for quality. Onegin could probably not have happened anywhere else. Consider the detail of the chorus work: that takes time. And where else could he have nurtured his working relationship with Andrew Davis? That, he says, is getting better all the time. Berg's Lulu is a labour of love for them both this season. Let's just say, it's marinating nicely.

Vick has never been in any doubt as to why opera does it for him. It's cathartic, it's emotionally liberating, it's drama raised to the highest level of intensity through music. It's what happens where words fail us. And it's the scale of the intensity that thrills him. It's good for the soul. "People talk of opera in terms of extravagance. But opera is only an extravagance if you think that that level of intensity isn't a part of life. I think it is."

n ENO's new 'Fidelio' opens at the Coliseum, London WC2 on Wednesday. Booking: 0171-632 8300