It would be difficult to imagine a city closer to the compositional vicissitudes of an opera than that of Vienna and Fidelio. Beethoven’s three versions of his only foray into the art form between 1805-1814 all took place in different theatres in the Austrian capital. After its destruction in World War II, the venerable Wiener Staatsoper reopened in 1955 with this paean to liberty, humanity and conjugal devotion. There have been twelve productions and close to 1,000 performances of Fidelio in Das Haus am Ring since 1869.

Whilst not exactly a case of familiarity breeding contempt, there is always the risk of performances becoming routine, particularly in the absence of a star conductor or singer. In this addition to the lengthy Fidelio performance list, there was no shortage of familiarity with the enduring Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen production.

The reliable Peter Schneider led the redoubtable Wiener Staatsoper orchestra with scrupulous attention to the dynamic markings of the score, (especially ppp notations) commendable almost kammerorchester-like clarity of instrumental colouring and careful consideration for the singers even if the tempi in the pit were occasionally ahead of those on stage such as in Rocco’s “Hat man nicht auch Geld daneben” aria and the “O welche Lust” chorus. This was hardly a controversial reading of the score, but neither was it particularly enlightening nor exciting.

The luscious Vienna string tone was mostly omnipresent, particularly in the introduction to the superb “Mir ist so wunderbar” quartet and opening to the prisoners’ chorus. The symphonic Leonora III Overture was the usual showstopper and, despite one fluffed entry by the horns, upheld the formidable reputation of the Staatsoper orchestra.

It was on-stage that extremely variable casting became apparent. Making his Staatsoper debut as Jaquino, Jörg Schneider (no connection to the conductor) seemed an odd choice. Admittedly he has a pleasant light tenor voice, but so do a multitude of others in the Staatsoper stable. It was his dramatic implausibility which was the greatest concern. Boaz Daniel's Don Fernando was more satisfactory but rather bland in voice and presence.

The snarly, barky, one dimensional bad-guy role of Don Pizzaro should also not be so difficult to cast. Compared to previous interpreters in Vienna such as Theo Adam or Falk Stuckmann, Albert Dohmen was not up to the task. Even with maestro Schneider’s exceptionally considerate accompaniment and singing at the front of the proscenium, there was a consistent failure to project, especially in the mid-range. The upper register was strained and pushed. The long high D natural on “Triumph”, for example, was forced and unmusical.

The 2011 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition winner Valentina Naforniţă was an attractive, doe-eyed Marzelline and much more satisfactory. Her light, limpid, vibrato-free soprano was ideally suited to the role, even if her final knowledge of Leonore’s real gender was so off-hand it seemed more like an “oh, whatever” moment.

Making his house debut as Rocco, Danish bass Stephen Milling was consistently impressive. With excellent breath control, the voice is even in all registers, especially the lower range, and there was real compassion when he deplored Florestan’s miserable condition. 

Having scored a major triumph as Leonore in Deborah Warner’s recent production at La Scala, one expected more from Anja Kampe, who is also no stranger to the Vienna staging. Perhaps she needed Warner’s directional challenges to bring out her best, but certainly in Act I she seemed surprisingly detached. Even the long “Abscheulicher” scene was slightly cool, albeit vocally sound. The semiquaver scale passages and top B naturals (eg. “erreichern”) were all accurate without being particularly impassioned. It wasn’t until her Florestan from the Scala production, Klaus Florian Vogt, appeared in Act II that her performance and that of the other singers improved remarkably.

Whilst not having a heavy helden timbre like Jon Vickers or James King, Vogt brings a gentler, almost lyrical vocal colour to the role which was immensely appealing. From his first beautifully intoned G natural on “Gott” to the demanding high tessitura of the “O namenlose Freude” duet, the former horn player turned dramatic tenor projected effortlessly over the heavier orchestration. Despite a hair styling which looked like a cross between Peter Hofmann as Parsifal and a blond Baldrick in Blackadder, Vogt’s dramatic qualities were both convincing and contagious and the final “Wer ein holdes Weib errungen” chorus was as jubilatory and joyful as one could wish for.

In this case, the ‘Retter’ of the performance was definitely the man in chains.