Unchained melodies

Stephen Johnson finds ENO's new Fidelio caught in the shadow of its Leonore
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The Independent Culture
Ten years ago, English National Opera staged a Fidelio with a modern, metallic, prison-like set. It looked impressive enough, but it made so much noise that the prisoners had to be brought on before the beginning of their big chorus, otherwise the rattling would have completely drowned Beethoven's quiet, awe-struck introduction. It was a good example of a production (by Joachim Herz) that was not simply un-musical, but actually anti-musical.

ENO has atoned for that crime handsomely with Graham Vick's new staging. Paul Brown's set is dominated by an enormous wooden cross that for most of Act 1 sits flat on the stage. It looks more than faintly coffin-like, but there's a hint of hope in the form of a small tree, planted on the right arm towards the end of the overture. When Peter Sidhom's Don Pizarro stands defiantly at its front, he looks like a captain at the prow of a ship. But the real coup comes at the start of the Prisoners' Chorus. The cross rises slowly, to reveal the chorus huddled beneath, still effectively pinned by its huge shadow.

Richard Hickox's view of the score met Vick's idea of the drama more than half-way. It was expressively dark, and always forward-moving - not inclined to wallow in the big moments, but very compelling, as if Hickox had an ear to the symphonic argument behind the relatively conventional number-structure. The choral singing was excellent: solid and impassioned throughout.

There were fine performances among the cast too. Philip Sheffield was a vocally and dramatically likeable Jaquino - though you could see why Marzelline was in no hurry to accept his pestering proposals. Gwynne Howell, reliable as ever, made Rocco a more sympathetic, more troubled figure than usual. Peter Sidhom's Pizarro was an effective tyrant. And there was some especially beguiling singing from Mary Plazas as Marzelline - for me, the vocal star of the evening.

So what about the two principals? Anthony Rolfe Johnson was, on the whole, firm enough as Florestan, but it was not a particularly stirring performance; as acting, it verged on the mininal. Kathryn Harries as Leonore was more impressive to watch: at times she achieved the near-impossible and actually looked like someone struggling to act the part of a newly betrothed boy while trying to locate her missing husband. If the singing had matched the acting, this would have been a great Leonore. But, on this occasion at least, she simply didn't have the voice. Tone and words often seemed to emerge through a mask. At climaxes she strained to deliver more power, but seemed only to lose control of her vibrato. Towards the end of the final ensemble, Leonore and Marzelline share the same phrase, both rising to a high B flat. Where Harries was effortful, Plazas soared. Make no mistake, this was still a moving Fidelio, even if at times it felt a little like Hamlet with only half a prince.

In repertory at ENO, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane WC2 (0171-632 8300) to 6 June