Red sky at night, but for whose delight?

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Opera: Fidelio

English Touring Opera,Theatre Royal, Brighton

Robert Chevara's new touring production of Beethoven's only opera offers a novel twist on the work's familiar plot. Here, for once, is a Fidelio that is saved by its Florestan, not the other way round; and those who left at the interval (as I was tempted to do) missed a quite unexpected reversal in the evening's vocal fortunes that neatly paralleled the bouleversement in Bouilly's true-life tale. Yet, until his bedraggled appearance at the start of Act 2, this Fidelio looked as far beyond salvation as poor Florestan himself.

Things got off to a bad start, with ropey string-playing from a skeletally cut-down band (pitilessly exposed in Brighton's pitless Theatre Royal) not quite serving to distract attention from the pointless little preambular dumb show of wifely worry which Chevara saw fit to inflict on the overture. Where Beethoven surely intended the early domestic scenes to provide light relief for the darker conflicts to come, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's piercing Jacquino subjected Denise Mulholland's insistently shrill, consistently overloud Marzelline to a protracted bout of sexual harassment that would have earned him star billing on an HM prison officers' training video. Paul Hudson, meanwhile, did his best to lower the tone with his erratically pitched, heel-clicking buffoon of a Rocco, while Es Devlin's single-piece set, with its big sliding doors and neatly stacked clothes' shelves, looked more like a classier branch of Benetton than a high-security jail. When a new prisoner arrived and began stripping off first his shirt, then his shoes and socks, I feared the worst - Fidelio: The Full Monty.

Thankfully, the new arrival kept his breeches on. As did Susan Stacey's Leonore. If more a Brunnhilde in the making than the housewife superstar of Beethoven's immortal longings (though one could easily imagine this buxom cross-dresser - like a juvenile Robbie Coltrane in a Nuns on the Run-style remake of Prisoner: Cell Block H - doing her award-winning trolley dash through the local hypermarket's chains and fetters department), Stacey is a real dramatic find, with a big, heroic voice and fearless attack; all she lacks is the true womanly warmth that would ideally inflect her phrasing of those two key words, "love" and "hope", in her great Act 1 scena (and, no, back-projecting various Matisse-like nudes in assorted poses of seduction and supplication really doesn't compensate). Still, when Act 1 ended with Leonore posed statuesquely against a striated red sky at night, one had to ask, in the absence of any obvious shepherds, just whose delight was it all for?

Things brightened up after the interval - and not just thanks to the wilful perversity of lighting designer Bruno Poet (only he doesn't know it) in choosing to ignore Beethoven's clear schema of a plunge from bright daylight into subterranean gloom (although it is one of the staging's more comic ironies that, while no one could possibly see beneath Leonore's masculine disguise in the Stygian gloom that passes for daylight in Act 1, the fact that Florestan can fail to recognise his wife in the comparative illumination of his solitary cell can only be ascribed to the lack of carrots in his starvation diet). "There's something in his voice," says Rocco of the unknown prisoner. "Yes, it pierces your heart," replies Leonore. And for once it's true. Geraint Dodd's tenor is very much of the Vickers school, with the same kind of rough wildness, hoarse integrity and plangent (self-)righteousness; his opening apostrophe to God swelled thrillingly from near-falsetto to baritonal fullness, while he attained true inspiration in his hallucinatory vision of an angelic Leonore. A dangerous dissident indeed, this Florestan energised the whole production. As Andrew Greenwood whipped his orchestra's excellent wind and brass choirs and heart-stopping timps into the helter-skelter rush towards freedom and the finale, one could almost overlook Chevara's few remaining directorial crimes - those inevitable Mothers of the Disappeared, clutching cumbersome lightboxes bearing further examples of Es Devlin's execrably amateur portraiture (the sort of thing pavement artists serve up in Mediterranean tourists traps out of season), and the brief outbreak of mob rule that sees off Pizarro and so clearly contradicts Beethoven's message of brotherly love and individual action. The nicest touch of all, though, was the way, as all around prepared to celebrate the reunited couple's joy, good old "father" Rocco just got on with tidying up the mess he'd made with all that grave- digging: as strong an argument as I've ever seen for playing Leonore No 3, scrawny strings or no.

25, 27 March, Peacock Theatre, London (0171-314 8800), then Ipswich, Darlington, Yeovil

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