OPERA / A gentle rebellion: Revolution goes timid in the Royal Opera's revival of Fidelio, says Nick Kimberley

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The Independent Culture
A MESSY business, revolution. Blood spills, property gets destroyed - far too indecorous for opera. In Beethoven's Fidelio, liberty arrives at the mere call of a trumpet, and when it comes to giving thanks, the assembled multitudes sing their praises to God, who has so far not shown much inclination to intercede on behalf of the oppressed. The closing ensemble hymns, not Liberty, but wedded bliss: 'Let him who has a wife like this join in our rejoicing.' Liberty, Equality, Matrimony: it doesn't have quite the right ring.

Beethoven's heart was in the right place, but Fidelio suffers the disillusionment felt by European liberals in the aftermath of 1789, which for many proved that revolution was too destructive. So the aristocrat Florestan achieves liberty, while the jailer Rocco and his daughter Marzelline reassume their 'rightful' place. Only the evil Don Pizarro loses out. Far from being revolutionary, Fidelio seems complacent.

Of course, the music has other ideas, and there are moments of real if generalised compassion: the awestruck chorus for the prisoners as they briefly glimpse daylight; Florestan's anguished rapture in the depths of his prison. These are the moments which work best in Patrick Young's Royal Opera House production, using Margit Bardy's sets for the 1990 Adolf Dresen staging. This manner of rethinking a production has obvious appeal in straitened times, but it does suggest that staging and design are interchangeable entities rather than components of an organic whole. Certainly Young's intermittently involving production relies on conventional gesture instead of a true sense of theatre, while Bardy's designs illustrate rather than evoke, only showing imagination in the clammy dark of Florestan's cell.

Here too the performers achieve real intensity, none more than Reiner Goldberg, a late substitute for Josef Protschka as Florestan. The voice has a brittle, glassy sheen, as if it might shatter at any moment, entirely appropriate for a starving prisoner. It is not a pretty sound but painful and well imagined. His first word - 'Gott', more a curse than an imprecation, extended to the verge of extinction - had a chilling effect. As Leonore, Josephine Barstow brings to mind Wagner's pivotal response to seeing Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient in the same role: 'She knew how to use her breath so beautifully and through it to let stream out a truly feminine soul sounding so marvellous that one thought neither of singing nor of voice.' Barstow's long frame and long jaw produce an unconventional, individual sound with a fine piano that sounds as if she is drawing the notes back into her body before they finally fade.

Kurt Rydl makes a gloomy Rocco filled with dark doubts and hesitations - a vocally impressive house debut, although judgement on his acting ability will have to be suspended until he is given something more to do. As ever Willard White sees dramatic vigour as the first priority. If he occasionally sacrificed accuracy, his Don Pizarro is an impressive, even dignified villain, a man who relishes the chance to display his power. Gillian Webster is now something of a Covent Garden stalwart, bringing reliable life to a range of roles both large and small. Her sparky Marzelline deserves better than the second- choice lover she ends up with, although Lynton Atkinson makes an appealingly gangling Jaquino. The chorus is in good form, massing in front of the curtain for the final moments and singing as if voices alone might change the world.

Jeffrey Tate is not a conductor to take risks in the grand classics, and this Fidelio is for the most part measured rather than inspired. All in all, a night at the opera for those who like their revolutions tame, even timid.