Beethoven took over nine years to write and edit Fidelio, his only opera. It tells the story of Leonore, whose husband Florestan is being illegally held in prison. She disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, and gets a job in the prison in an attempt to save him. Over the course of its creation it turned from a three-act opera into a two-act one, changed its name, and went through four separate overtures! One would hope that the result would be a masterpiece to rival the great operas of Mozart, the operatic giant of the age, sitting next to Beethoven’s nine symphonies as a towering monument to his immense compositional abilities. While Beethoven's success here is debatable, a great production can certainly still make it thrilling to watch, with some music that is simply breathtaking; it’s just more difficult to do than with, say, Don Giovanni.

Dean Power (First Prisoner), Jussi Myllys (Jailer), Laura Tatulescu (Marzelline), Franz-Josef Selig © Wilfried Hösl
Dean Power (First Prisoner), Jussi Myllys (Jailer), Laura Tatulescu (Marzelline), Franz-Josef Selig
© Wilfried Hösl

When the curtain went up on the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production I was both intrigued and hopeful. The Escher-like Perspex labyrinth of a set was breathtaking and well suited to the powerfully claustrophobic nature of the opera (the entire intrigue takes place within the walls of the prison). However, instead of starting with the overture, Leonore gave a short monologue, which isn’t found in the original libretto or the completed score. When the overture did finally start it was in fact the Leonore Overture no.3, from Beethoven’s 1806 version of the opera, rather than the Fidelio Overture which he used in the final 1814 version (which this production otherwise makes use of). If it were simply an overture then this substitution would probably be inconsequential, but sadly it was not: during the overture we witnessed Leonore’s breast-binding, and while this was an emotional and powerful scene in itself it was not quite enough to fill 14 minutes of overture.

Another strange musical choice was the incorporation of the 'Molto adagio' from Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op.132 between the two scenes of the second act, the position traditionally held (until about 1960) by the Leonore Overture no.3. This was beautifully played by the Odeon-Quartett suspended from the ceiling in cages, and it did add something to the production, providing a contemplative calmness and love to the reunited husband and wife. However, like the overture, it was quite long, even in the shorted form that was performed, and as in the overture the powerful dramatic effect soon stagnated.

Perhaps my most major criticism of this production is the number of bizarre, 'symbolic' ideas worked into it. I don’t have any problems with visual symbolism in principle, and I find that it can often make operas more engaging and shed new light on tired repertoire. However, being as abstruse as this can have the opposite effect. Why was Don Fernando dressed as the Joker from Batman? Why was Don Pizarro dressed like a tramp, while Rocco (the prison guard) wore a smart suit throughout? Why did Leonore/Fidelio walk through the crowd of prisoners pinning mugshots to their clothes? Perhaps it is my failing that I was unable to see these ideas' significance, but they always felt superimposed onto the work, rather than emerging naturally from it. Symbolic references should always come from within the work; when they are thrust upon it as they are here they only serve to confuse and to frustrate.

However, in spite of these criticisms, musically the performance was extraordinary, as I have come to expect from the Bayerische Staatsoper. Zubin Mehta conducted the Staatsorchester with utmost care and emotion, every phrase and attack perfectly balanced and dramatically charged. The singers were, without exception, phenomenal. Beethoven’s vocal lines are particularly unkind to singers, and require extreme skill and stamina to perform but there was no hint of struggle here. Anna Virovlansky, as the prison-keeper’s daughter Marzelline, sung with faultless precision and bite, giving the coloratura knife-edge accuracy, while always maintaining her beautiful tone. As Florestan, Peter Seiffert’s powerful and biting voice really brings out the character’s anguish, while Anja Kampe’s incredible endurance ensures that the title character is sung with incredible intensity from the first note to the last. However, for me, it was Danish bass Stephen Milling who stole the show, with a voice so monumental it seemed to have the foundations of a cathedral, but which still retained the capacity for a beautiful pianissimo.

Overall, however, I would not recommend this production of Fidelio. It seems to me that all the problems stem from the style of the controversial director Calixto Bieito. While it is always good to reinterpret operas, it feels as though here Bieito started with his vision and tried to ram the opera into it, rather than starting from the opera and working with it. I can’t help but feel that if he’d been more faithful to the original text then the production’s incredible visual appeal may have elucidated rather than obscured the work’s meaning. That said, the audience seemed to love it, with standing ovations from the upper circles and seemingly endless cheering and applause! Perhaps it’s better just to enjoy the visual spectacle and not worry about any meaning it may hold… So maybe you should go and judge for yourself.