OPERA / Opera that fails to move: Fidelio - Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
LIKE many a problematical masterpiece, Fidelio has had its critics. A few have found it too symphonic; Wagner on the other hand thought it wasn't symphonic enough. As far as I am aware, though, no one has ever suggested that it might be an oratorio. And yet there were moments in Tuesday's Royal Festival Hall concert performance, conducted by Andrew Litton, where the mood and manner came close. Most of the cast made some attempt at acting. As Leonore, however, Jane Eaglen deported herself as she might have done in church - or the recording studio: minimal movement, and with the score very much to hand.

The appearance matched the singing. No question, Eaglen makes a magnificent sound. The extremes of Beethoven's soprano writing were strong and true. After Gabriela Benackova's unsteady and lacklustre Leonore at the Royal Opera, all this could only be welcome. But dramatically, expressively, Eaglen rarely did more than skim the surface. And judging from the spoken dialogue, German pronunciation is not one of her strongest points.

Perhaps she might have generated a little more heat alongside a more inspiring Florestan. Edward Cook worked harder at characterisation. His opening cry, 'Gott] welch' Dunkel hier]' ('God, what darkness here'), was definitely tingle-worthy. Soon, though, he was straining in the heights of the following aria - visionary intensity coming more from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's principal oboist.

Linda Kitchen and Benoit Boutet made rounder characters out of Marzelline and Jacquino, and musically these were firm, shapely performances. Finer still - in parts - was Sir Donald McIntyre's Rocco, yet even he had his dramatic lacunae. And the combination of these three with Eaglen in that heart-melting Act 1 quartet provided what was possibly the most disappointingly oratorio-like moment in the whole performance. The notes were there, the vocal sounds blended and contrasted effectively, but it was all rather staid - a heavy letdown after the warmly expressive playing of the Bournemouth strings in the opening bars.

Of the cast, that leaves Alan Opie's Pizarro - frowning determinedly, but not an outstandingly powerful characterisation, with weaknesses in the lower register - and Matthew Best's Don Fernando - a lovely sound, but a vibrato that too often wobbled around the notes rather than centring on them. The chorus was firmer, but the intensity didn't overflow until the closing scene. The decisive factor was Litton and the orchestra's playing in the Leonore No 3 Overture, sandwiched, according to tradition, between the last two scenes of Act 2. The Overture's heroics - so often dramatically tautological in the context of the opera - at last kindled a vital spark. Beethoven's final hymn to conjugal love was the roller-coaster it has to be.

And by then, the projected surtitles had settled down and begun to correspond - on the whole - to what was being sung or spoken. Their wobblings and sudden, frantic bursts of activity in Act 1 made one appreciate the skill with which they're normally handled at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. When they work, surtitles can be a blessing; when they don't they are a major irritation. A little more practice is needed.