The Edinburgh Festival: Flawed Fidelio rules the day

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'BUGGERY yesterday, Beethoven today,' said a friend when I asked what she'd been up to at Edinburgh. As a summary of this year's preoccupations, it was selective but fair. Edinburgh's Aids plays fall beyond the remit of this column, but Beethoven is inescapable: he rules the music schedules with a thoroughness betokened by Fidelio Day, a 12-hour guide to the tortuous development of his only opera. Anyone who stayed the course - through performances of related orchestral music (Martin Andre and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra); the opera's prototype, Leonore (SCO again, with Charles Mackerras); and Fidelio itself (a new Scottish Opera production by Tim Albery) - will appreciate as never before Beethoven's belief that human achievement is the product of struggle.

Fidelio is a problem piece: an isolated outcrop in the genealogy of opera which, unlike Beethoven's other work, founded no succession. Wagner proclaimed himself a Beethovenian; but it was the fusion of symphonic thought with voices in the 9th Symphony that inspired him, not Fidelio. As theatre, its fierce moral earnestness can overwhelm the characters. And for latterday directors it's a trap: an invitation to camouflage flat dramatic contours, tedious spoken dialogue and dour prison sets with high-gloss politics in strident colours.

Beethoven's problem was one of scale. The early 19th century was his 'heroic' period, assumed to be a psychological response to deafness, and a time when his scores grew to epic stature. Fidelio, with its themes of libertarian endeavour and the overthrow of state oppression, required no less. But he weighed in too heavily, too fast. There are four different overtures to the opera - three discarded and the first two so mightily symphonic that the opening can feel like a descent into bathos. Especially when, as we heard in Edinburgh, the original 1805 version began with spoken dialogue.

This 1805 Leonore - rarely heard - turned out to be a fascinatingly flawed first try: slower than the final product, with more domestic detail and weaker endings to the three (later two) acts. And the vocal writing for Leonore isn't so direct. Her 'Komm o Hoffnung' aria is more elaborate, more embellished, and proved taxing for Janice Watson, who was eclipsed by Rebecca Evans's impressive Marzelline. But Mackerras had a fine cast overall and they were a hard act for Scottish Opera to follow later in the day. The stars were Matthew Best and Stafford Dean as Rocco and Pizarro, but the chorus was vigorous, Richard Armstrong's conducting to the point; and there was a bizarre charm in Albery's production, which is the first to debut in the new Festival Theatre.

Stewart Laing's sets recreate the claustrophobia of a prison, with small, boxed spaces assembled like a doll's house. The interiors have dinky colour washes, and the staging has the feel of not-quite-historicity. It says that Albery isn't necessarily convinced by what his characters yearn for as 'freedom'. The two big, idealistic numbers - 'Komm o Hoffnung' and the 'Namenlose freude' duet - take place before a drop that's like those radiant landscapes you see in evangelical bookshops. Either it's ironic, or Albery is more innocent than a stage director can afford to be; and there's no doubting the irony of the stage image before the final curtain - the prison recedes into the distance to be replaced by a view of the brave new world to which the prisoners will return: an urban citadel of high-rise blocks.

Edinburgh's musical spotlight also falls on Chabrier, a petit maitre remembered for his songs, his charm, and that sparkling, sun-soaked pot-boiler Espana. We also know, thanks to Opera North's proselytising, that his salon style was capable of enlargement into comic opera. But not many at the Usher Hall can have been prepared for the impact of Act I of Briseis, the surviving stump of what was meant to be a massive post- Wagnerian opera, cut short by Chabrier's death. The story - a romance of Tristan intensity set against the pagan-Christian tensions of the Roman Near East - is all fin-de-siecle overstatement. But the music is astonishing: a feast of colour, richly textured, brilliantly imagined and - surprisingly - with backbone. The playing, by the BBC Scottish Symphony under Jean Yves Ossonce, was magnificent, with superb singing from Joan Rodgers, Kathryn Harries and the Scottish Opera Chorus. If ever a discovery at Edinburgh cried out for repetition down south, here it is.

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