Dramatically speaking, Fidelio is the ultimate “rescue opera”. For Garsington Opera, it’s also a rescue of a different sort: with five concert performances providing a salvage of some sort of their 2020 festival. It’s a rare artistic director who can make a virtue out of necessity, but Douglas Boyd and stage director Peter Mumford have responded with flair to the Covid-induced restrictions. I can honestly say that this is a stronger, more interesting performance of Fidelio than might have happened in normal circumstances.

Fidelio in concert at Garsington
© Garsington Opera

To cut down the performance time and to handle the absence of sets and costumes, the spoken dialogue is replaced by silent-movie style panels of text relating both the backstory and the stage directions for the moment, overlaid, along with the surtitles onto video footage which evokes the atmosphere of prison and dungeon without attempting to be a film of the action. It’s simple and effective: the narrative zips along at a rapid pace and we can enjoy to the full the progression of wonderful pieces of music.

That’s all the more so because the orchestra is reduced to 13 players from the Philharmonia. Under the baton of an enthusiastic Boyd, every one of them played out of their skin. Far from missing the lushness of a full string sound, we could hear every nuance of Beethoven’s ingenuity in constructing melodies, harmonies and rhythmic device. Each time a single note caused a particularly felicitous change in harmony, that note was clearly signposted to us, without orchestral clutter to hide it – a true revelation of the music. Among many virtuoso individual performances, I’ll highlight the trumpet fanfare which greets Don Fernando’s arrival, played magnificently by Jason Evans, presumably brimming with confidence after his solo Proms debut on Wednesday. The first act quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar”, took us to operatic heaven, with vocal and instrumental lines interwoven so that every line was crystal clear but the sum of the parts was greater still.

Toby Spence (Florestan)
© Johan Persson

During that quartet, I particularly took note of the strong underpinning provided by Stephen Richardson’s Rocco, and he followed it with a superbly sung “Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben”, a neatly judged mix of basso buffo money-grubbing old man and Beethovenian seeker for the high ideals of love. Toby Spence sang a compelling Florestan, strong, earnest and smooth-timbred, marred only by the voice being overstretched on a couple of occasions. After a quiet start, Galina Averina warmed up to give us a sweet, melodic and lilted Marzelline, to be overpowered (as is dramatically appropriate) by Katherine Broderick’s red-blooded, powerhouse Leonore. Broderick’s voice did tend to go hard-edged when she ratcheted it up to full throttle towards her upper register, but the elegance of phrasing and dramatic intensity couldn’t be faulted. Richard Burkhard gave a memorable deus ex machina cameo as Don Fernando. I’ve often greatly enjoyed Burkhard in comic roles, but he proved here that he can be authoritative and lyrical in serious roles also.

Another neat trick to overcome Covid-19 restrictions was to pre-record the Prisoner’s Chorus as a Zoom-stitched-together video with Garsington’s Digital Young Artists Programme, mixing the result with the live orchestra and three live chorus singers. Sync wasn’t always perfect, but Mumford’s artful blurring and weaving of the singers' faces into the darkly lit video of the prison was highly emotive.

Katherine Broderick (Leonore) and members of the Philharmonia
© Garsington Opera

Garsington are somewhat under-selling this Fidelio by describing it as “in Concert”: the solo singers were using neither scores nor music stands and while distancing rules prevented them from acting together, they were acting their roles individually with great commitment, with the story on screen linking them together and the video providing atmosphere. In his pre-show talk, Boyd quoted “namenlose Freude” (boundless joy), the words which start Florestan and Leonore’s last duet, as being the emotions of the artists at being able to perform in front of a live audience. As a member of that audience, I can echo that sentiment absolutely.