In his production of Fidelio for English National Opera, director Calixto Bieito sets out to completely contradict the work’s central tenet. With most of the original dialogue in between numbers jettisoned in favour of excerpts from Borges and Cormac McCarthy, which better support Bieito’s opinion that freedom is an illusion, much of the plot is left, at best, unexplained, and at worst, mangled or altered.

© Bavarian State Opera / Wilfried Hösl
© Bavarian State Opera / Wilfried Hösl

Bieito has found the perfect collaborator in David Pountney, whose English translation with its sing-song rhyming helps to undercut the vast majority of the work with an overridingly nasty cynicism. Meanings are constantly being tweaked in order to further Bieito’s grim vision; the image of “a rainbow which seems to look back to an older time” in the rapt C major passage in the recit before Leonora’s aria to Hope becomes merely “nostalgia”, whilst the doting advances of Jaquino are now “attacks”. Whilst there were instances where Bieito’s dramatic intelligence and understanding of how to fit gesture to music shone through – Pizarro slicing through a tie with his knife over a rising sequence in the strings and imaginative lighting by Tim Mitchell both come to mind – there were also numerous moments of real weakness. Leonora limply smashing a glass on Pizarro at the drama’s highpoint was underwhelming in the extreme, and the half-hearted wanderings of the cast in the overture hardly matched the sophistication of the labyrinthine set they were clambering through.

To begin with, the vivid music-making that Edward Gardner managed to draw from the pit was a welcome relief to the action on stage, but as the evening progressed, the complicity of such intelligent musicians in Bieito’s project became the most upsetting aspect of all. The violent descending bass and louring brass at the end of Pizarro’s aria with chorus in act I was combined with the on-stage representation of self-harming and acquired a truly disturbing, sinister power. After a prisoner committing suicide in the middle of one of the choruses of prisoners, the very last notes of Act I – particularly the sustained F in the upper strings that is usually such a beacon of hope – have never sounded so dead. Elsewhere Bieito’s attempts to co-opt the music failed entirely – the sweet, expressive phrasing of the winds betraying the deep disjuncture between the music’s essence and what he would have it mean.

Stuart Skelton, singing Florestan, contributed the strongest vocal performance of the night, his aria which opens Act II –left mostly untouched by Bieito – displaying a commitment and vocal prowess not often on show elsewhere. As Leonora, Emma Bell handled the role’s many vocal challenges well enough, but rarely dug deep enough emotionally and mumbled much of her spoken interjections. Sarah Tynan, playing Marzelline, also had diction problems, though no one would envy her in having to realise Bieito’s twisted vision of the relationship between her character and Adrian Dwyer’s Jacquino, who is turned from a blundering but well-meaning admirer into a deeply disturbed sexual predator.

Usually a headache for directors, the gaoler Rocco – sung here solidly by James Creswell – became the lynchpin of Bieito’s whole project. His journey from small-mindedness and fear to compassion and inner strength – important in connecting the opera’s opening scenes with the large abstract ideas which dominate Act II – is all but erased. Rather than simply offering Florestan a drink out of pity, he rams the bottle in his face, and when he sings of his “heart relenting” this isn’t believable because he, like everyone else in Bieito’s drama, has been shown not have a heart. One of the most beautiful moments in the entire opera comes when, challenged by Pizarro (Philip Horst) as to why has let the prisoners out of their cells, Rocco forgets himself and cites the coming of spring – here this moment is smothered, subsumed in the grandiose and ironic music which follows.

If employed in a sensitive and respectful way, the insertion of Beethoven’s “Hymn of Thanksgiving” from the A minor Quartet Op. 132 before the Act II finale (a place sometimes occupied by the third Leonora overture) could prove incredibly effective. Performed here in a heavily cut version by the Heath Quartet (suspended above the stage in cages) this great, noble masterpiece was transformed into a bitter lament, manipulatively used to accompany to the scenes of human anguish occurring on stage.

At the end of this production, when justice does finally arrive, it does so in the form of a clown – Roland Wood’s Don Fernando dressed in the costume of an 18th-century aristocrat – who hands out banners saying “FREE” on them. The radiant last chorus becomes a violent barking frenzy. In presenting the opera’s final scene in such a way, Bieito does not simply seek to undermine and reverse the message of this idealistic hymn to freedom – he also invites his audience to join him in mocking it and its composer. As a sensitive production of Fidelio would more than make clear, Beethoven understood all too well the complexities and contradictions inherent in the idea of liberty. Unlike Bieito, though, he also believed in the transformative power of love and hope. The visionary spirit of this opera is something to be valued and supported, rather than derided as it has been here.