Although Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, draws on the comedic genre of Singspiel, its sweeping music, prison setting, and protagonist’s desperate heroism usually earn it fairly serious treatment. Not so for this production at Garsington Opera. Although Gary McCann’s stark grey set initially suggests otherwise, this Fidelio is decidedly comedic, sometimes bordering on slapstick. The result is an evening of fun, devoid of political or emotional depth.

Peter Wedd (Florestan) and Rebecca von Lipinski (Leonore) © Mike Hoban
Peter Wedd (Florestan) and Rebecca von Lipinski (Leonore)
© Mike Hoban

Jennifer France (Marzelline) and Sam Furness (Jaquino) open the opera with spirited acting and singing. France’s bright, ringing soprano and indomitable personality make a particular impression. As her father Rocco, Stephen Richardson owns the stage every time he appears. He throws away quite a few notes in favour of growled or whispered text, but that is not a bad choice in such a character role. He is certainly never boring, even if he occasionally seems lost in his ensembles.

Leonore as Fidelio is played as a handsome and charmingly awkward youth by Rebecca von Lipinski. Her voice is lighter than the typical Fidelio/Leonore, but she deploys it with impeccable artistry and introduces a wide range of colours into the difficult role. As her imprisoned husband Florestan, Peter Wedd begins the second act with a stunning crescendo and achingly sung aria. He seems oddly unable to respond to his wife’s devotion, though, and when they sing together Lipinski’s valiant attempts are insufficient to produce chemistry between them.

Darren Jeffery (Pizarro) and Stephen Richardson (Rocco) © Mike Hoban
Darren Jeffery (Pizarro) and Stephen Richardson (Rocco)
© Mike Hoban

This lack of connection is exacerbated by the lack of a sense of any sort of threat. Florestan’s prison seems grim enough, but Darren Jeffery’s Don Pizarro is anything but terrifying. His slick black hair and overblown facial expressions evoke a pantomime villain rather than a ruthless political maneuverer, and his promises of revenge cause laughter rather than fear in the audience. (In pantomime fashion, he was booed rather than cheered during the curtain call.) When Don Fernando (sung by Joshua Bloom, in a gloriously resonant bass voice) rebukes him for his villainy, he merely smirks and shuffles off-stage. Does he escape unpunished? I didn’t take him seriously enough to care.

The Wormsley Estate, Garsington Opera’s home, provides an excellent setting for Fidelio. The custom-built pavilion opens onto the gardens, which the prisoners can look upon longing as they sing of their freedom. (And the Garsington Opera Chorus does sing — and act — very well.) When the prisoners are briefly allowed to go outdoors, the audience can see them lie peacefully among the flowers through the pavilion’s glass walls, even as other scenes take place onstage. Unfortunately, the indoor portion of the set is not used as imaginatively: The staging is very static with little business for the singers. The rare physical interactions between characters are often quite awkward, as in the climactic confrontation scene, when the supposedly defiant Leonore lets herself be easily nudged out of Don Pizarro’s way as he threatens Florestan.

Musically, this production is quite solid. On top of the strong cast, conductor Douglas Boyd draws bright sound and impressive dynamic range from the Garsington Opera Orchestra, although the louder sections do not have quite the force I expect from Beethoven (perhaps because of the acoustics of the pavilion). Occasional timing issues between the orchestra and singers were noticeable on the opening night but did not detract substantially, and will undoubtedly disappear a few performances into the run.

On the whole, Garsington’s Fidelio is an evening of beautiful music and slow-paced comedy. The opera’s deeper messages of devotion and triumph over tyranny are lost in laughter. This is an enjoyable Fidelio, but not a particularly affecting or great one.

***11