OPERA
Fidelio, New Theatre, Cardiff

Fidelio being a rescue opera, it may be as well that Welsh National Opera hadn't booked a local producer for their new production in Cardiff at this period in the Principality's history. Apart from British berets on the prison guards, the French team of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser scrupulously avoided localised readings. A pity, though, that they as scrupulously avoided much else that might seem basic to this simple celebration of the power of love.

By modern standards,Beethoven was morally and politically a baby. He believed in fidelity, marriage and upright kings. He thought women were for housekeeping and that only exceptional women (dressed as men) could rise to moral heights. Caurier and Leiser naturally reject all this. Their "good" ruler (Don Fernando: a neat vignette by Andrew Greenan) shoots Pizarro out of hand, showing himself politically superior but morally inferior. Their Leonora and Florestan barely look at each other, even in the recognition duet. The character that interests this team is Rocco: the weak pragmatist, the epitome of humanity in slavery to outmoded values. Donald McIntyre's clever portrait is the most detailed thing in the production, but this is hardly the musical centre of the piece.

At bottom, a Fidelio that doesn't lift you out of your seat in the dungeon quartet or "O namenlose Freude" has missed the point. Adrian Thompson's Florestan is beautifully sung (his visionary duet with the oboe was the musical summit of Friday's first night), but he is never in darkness and never - dramatically speaking - rescued, literally never rises to his feet. As for Suzanne Murphy's Leonora, this is one of her unhappiest roles; under-produced and denied emotional climax, she never fully gets her voice round the music, eventually almost fading out - sad for so fine an artist.

By contrast, Rebecca Evans is allowed to be a good Marzeline - fresh, silly, pretty - and does it all with a warmth and musicality that leave one valuing those qualities, as Beethoven audibly did. Peter Hoare's Jaquino likewise comes out well enough. Evan Gidon Sak's vibrant Pizarro escapes revisionism, being, I suppose, a pantomime villain beyond reform.

Presented on a bare stage and in timeless modern weeds (designers Christian Fenouillat and Agostino Cavalca), the production is at its best at neutral moments where musical design is paramount. Caurier and Leiser use movement sensitively. The canon quartet was beautifully handled in this way, and so was the dungeon quartet until ruined by a refusal of its high points. The chorus seemed to appreciate the statuesque approach, though the Prisoner's chorus was posed and wooden. Carlo Rizzi conducted with growing authority, and drew lovely detail from the orchestra. Musically there was a lot to enjoy. But the drama remained elusive, not helped by German dialogue and surtitles that rarely coincided with the music.

Further performances: 20 and 27 Sept and 2 Oct, then on tour. Details from 01222 464666.

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