The Dresden Semperoper premiered a new production of Fidelio scarcely a month before the fall of East Germany. Much has changed in the intervening decade and a bit, but the Semperoper is still playing the same Fidelio. It doesn't take much knowledge of recent German history to understand why it was a sensation at the time. The prison guards and the politics are those of the dying East Germany itself, and the crowd that hails Leonore and Florestan, triumphant fighters for freedom and justice, looks no different at the end of the opera from the crowd protesting in Dresden's streets in October 1989. The Berlin Wall fell in November.

© Matthias Creutziger
© Matthias Creutziger

This is somewhat ironic, because Fidelio was actually played very frequently in East Germany, featuring the East German state as the beacon of freedom and justice and the capitalist West as the oppressors. That director Christine Mielitz was able to accomplish this reversal was a sign that the regime's power was, in September, truly a thing of the past. It also indicates how nonspecific the politics of Beethoven's opera truly are. What constitutes freedom and justice is sometimes a matter of perspective, and having Beethoven's music on your side does wonders for your cause. While in Dresden Beethoven switched sides a little before the government did, his music has retained its appeal: the opera is played almost as often in post-reunification Dresden as it was before it. The middle-aged Dresden music critic seated next to me last night sighed. "Fidelio again. I've seen it so many times." The opera, he explained, enjoys cult status in Dresden, and now this production reminds everyone of 1989.

Truth be told, this evening did not produce a particularly exceptional Fidelio, with a problematic cast buoyed chiefly by the exceptional orchestra, the Saechsicher Staatskapelle. Conductor John Fiore led a conventionally heroic but not overly heavy account of the score, beginning with a fast and energetic account of the overture (the Fidelio one, and the oft-interpolated Leonore no. 3 did not make an appearance in this performance). The Staatskapelle's remarkably refined and precise string section was a joy to hear even in the mundane figurations of the aria accompaniments. The only faults were some cracks and late entrances in the horns (thankfully not in "Komm', Hoffnung").

It seemed Fiore's attention was more on the pit than the stage, and the two did not enjoy a close relationship. Unfortunately drab facade of the set was too often matched by the cast's lack of individuality and engagement. Evelyn Herlitzius was a Leonore armed with only one deadly weapon: an extremely loud voice. While her giant tone can be thrilling in its sheer amplitude, her wide vibrato often strayed far off pitch, and attempts at singing at softer dynamics were well-intentioned but pale-toned. She navigated her difficult aria competently, but towards the end turned to screaming. There was never any doubt behind her broad acting that her Fidelio, convincing-looking boy that she was, had a big secret, and unfortunately there was little nuance or urgency to her expression either. And the biggest moment of the role—Leonore's cry of "Töt erst sein Weib!"—was cut short.

As Leonore's beloved Florestan, Jürgen Müller looked like an apparatchik, stumbling around his large cell in circles wearing a long coat. His sinewy Heldentenor is unable to command a smooth line or dynamics other than forte, and his breath proved badly short. Like Herlitzius his big aria concluded in yelling. When the demands were lesser he sounded much better, but his tone is badly worn.

The supporting cast was as a whole better. Georg Zeppenfeld looked even younger than Fidelio as the "old" Rocco, but sang with impressive burnished tone. Carolina Ullrich and Timothy Oliver were effective and well cast as Marzelline and Jaquino. As the villainous Don Pizarro, Matthias Henneberg sang with an unusually musical and lyric style a role that is usually treated with gruff bluster; unfortunately he failed to be terribly imposing and was often drowned out by the orchestra.

Mielitz's production may not produce the frisson it did when it was new, but in this nth bare-bones revival it's solid enough for repertory, even if what was created as bracingly contemporary registers today as an almost quaint period piece. The set's most prominent feature is a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire downstage that divides the stage's prison from the gilded auditorium of the Semperoper. Behind the fence the cement block set rotates to show an interior office, a room of paper-shufflers, more fences in the prison yard, and finally Florestan's seemingly immense cell.

The spoken dialogue was unexceptional, and the direction is largely conventional with only a few individual touches remaining. At Fidelio's first entrance he has been shopping for something less legal than ordinary groceries, and the guard's lack of interest in their work is nicely portrayed as they work on paperwork in the March. Florestan's portrayal as a briefcase-carrying official, even while in his cell, suggests that the prison is larger than just the one contained within these four walls. Elsewhere the production could take place in any time or place: it is only its history in Dresden that makes it unique.

That history still means something, even if the performance failed to impress on this evening. Potential English-language visitors should note that this production is performed without surtitles in German or in any other language.