The lights dimmed and an announcer explained that following the destruction of earth’s ecosystem, there had been a scramble to rocket bases and a rush to transport surviving life to the nearest planet, Mars. The spaceship Aniara had to veer off course to avoid a meteor shower, and when space was clear again, they were past the point of no return, heading for the constellation Lyra, light years away. Gary Hill, Californian artist and director of this production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, took Harry Martinson’s doomed spaceship setting for his science-fiction poem Aniara (1956) as inspiration, and his huge, largely black-and-white video projections were the scenery in a production which certainly promised to be very different, and had been much anticipated by this capacity crowd.

© Bertrand Stofleth
© Bertrand Stofleth

Some of the singers appeared on Segways, which although initially interesting actually limited each to a “stand and deliver” approach, as body movements sent them gliding off – and, in this opera about love and humanity, restricted them from actually touching one another, creating emotional detachment. Indeed, barriers were the problem of the night: all characters wore gloves throughout, and in an unforgivable production decision, the entire opera was sung behind a gauze, put there to take the front video projections. Hill has absolutely no experience of opera, and his unfortunate choice of placement of singers and chorus did little to help a difficult sound balance as the orchestra in shallow pit in the Festival Theatre simply overwhelmed them at times.

The use of video projection has become more commonplace as technology has evolved, and it is now possible to achieve stunning effects in opera, as shown by Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met. Here, using projection on front and rear gauzes, Hill’s busy and ever-moving tumbling bits of spaceship, asteroids and even letters were interesting to watch for a while, but became very tedious over the entire evening. There were two instances of colour projections in rather-too-obvious references, one showed huge, revolving 25-cent coins with the American eagle taking off from one surface and Liberty walking off the other side at the end of the opera. The other was a garden of plants growing round and over the prisoners’ chorus in Act I.

Focusing on the positives, there was actually quite a decent performance trying to get out through the gauze to the audience. In a generally even night of voices, the singing honours were taken by Andrew Schroeder as Don Fernando, and Erika Sunnegårdh as Leonore, whose lovely aria in the first act got the only mid-action applause of the evening. The chorus sounded rather thin at times, and being positioned right at the rear of the stage for the final chorus did them no favours. Conductor Kazushi Ono drew fine playing from the opera orchestra, particularly from the strings who produced a beautiful, rich sound. There were odd brass fluffs and sometimes pit and stage did not quite match, but given the obstacles placed in the way by the director, this was perhaps not surprising.

Paulina Wallenberg-Olsson had a field day with her wonderfully outrageous black-and-white, spacey costumes. Many were in sort of fleecy, white adult babygrow one-pieces, including Leonore, who put on a white, saucepan-shaped hat with a lamp in the front as a disguise. Bad-man Pizarro (who it turns out was responsible for Earth’s destruction) was in a massive black conical shaped floor-length skirt, and the chorus wore skirts too with large black and white vertical and diagonal prisoner stripes, heads and faces also covered.

Different and bold productions are fine if they work, but this one failed on so many counts. Apart from technical difficulties mentioned, the story of the opera – with a new character arriving on a doomed spaceship and a happy ending – did not fit Martinson’s tale. There were baffling moments too, as returning from the interval, a projected verse told us: “Now we have fathomed what our space ship is: a tiny bubble in a glass of God”. At one stage Leonore had to assemble what looked like cross-sections of a car roof-top box, delivered to her piece by piece on remote electric trolleys – a spacey body bag for Florestan? We may never know.

Taking their bows, with the front gauze finally lifted (hooray!) we saw the chorus’ faces for the first time, and principals in true focus. Even then, on the rear projection, the spaceship slowly tumbled its way to infinity and became a white dot amongst the stars. Although this was a production to talk about, and which will divide audiences, it was perhaps an unfortunate choice to head up Edinburgh’s International Festival. The chorus of boos greeting the production team at the end said it all.