Can a concert performance of Fidelio survive when gendered disguise and class difference are missing because everyone’s wearing evening dress, when there’s no stygian dungeon, and no knives or guns? Can any performance of Fidelio survive when its Fidelio/Leonore – Elza van den Heever – goes down with laryngitis at lunchtime on the day before it's performed?

Simon O'Neill (Florestan)
© Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Clearly the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Simone Young is made of the sternest stuff, for in just a few hours she’d brought in two Antipodean singers to fill parts of the key role and cut and pasted the score to achieve a decent facsimile of Beethoven’s 1814 intentions. Madeleine Pierard, in particular, must be highly commended for jumping on a dawn plane from New Zealand to tackle five numbers with aplomb. Local soprano Eleanor Lyons may have learnt only a single aria from scratch, but it was the “fiendishly difficult” (in Young’s words) “Abscheulicher!” from Act 1. And, with sympathetic conducting, her sharing of such an outmoded concept as “the duty of devoted marital love” was surprisingly effective.

Eleanor Lyons (Leonore)
© Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Much of the mighty drama may have been missing – we heard the iconic trumpet blasts that interrupt the key “Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen” quartet and save Florestan’s life only via the Leonore Overture no. 3 – but the singing (and orchestra) saved the day. And, given that it is such an uneven opera, moving from Mozartian cross-dressing and confused eros to Eroica-charged political allegory, it may even be better not to have to have the chance to impose modern directorial ideas on the heroic score.

Mind you, part of the appeal to me in advance had been the replacement of what’s generally thought to be Fidelio’s clunky dialogue with five sections of words from Aboriginal writer, Tyson Yunkaporta. His recent book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World suggested they might be at a level above simple attacks on British colonialism or the excessive imprisonment of his peoples today. And indeed, his texts seemed concentrated on the romantic aspects of the opera, asking “Will love survive in such a frigid underworld?”. But then he came up with the challenging line, “Freedom loves a good dungeon”. However, much was so dense that I need to read his words to achieve an understanding of references to oysters and whistle-blowers.

Samantha Clarke (Marzelline) and Nicholas Jones (Jaquino)
© Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Vocally, Simon O’Neill’s Florestan was outstanding. Both his opening stentorian cry of “Gott” – totally refuting that he was wasting away in his dungeon – and his supportive duet “O namenlose Freude” with fellow New Zealander Pierard, were highlights of the evening. Let us hope that “Er sterbe” can join their ranks for the Saturday evening repeat. In its absence, the ensemble of the night was the “Mir ist so wunderbar” quartet in Act 1, where Samantha Clarke’s Marzelline delighted beside her father (Jonathan Lemalu), her would-be lover (Nicholas Jones) and Pierard’s Fidelio.

Simon O'Neill (Florestan) and Madeleine Pierard (Leonore)
© Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Orchestrally, the revamped Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House displayed the SSO at its finest – no better than the mellow horn trio accompanying “Abscheulicher!”, Emma Sholl’s flute in Leonore 3, and the strings throughout. At the helm after what must have been a traumatic 30 hours, Young shaped Beethoven’s music and the Sydney Philharmonia men’s choir with her hands and energised them with her body.