What to do with Fidelio? Replace the dialogue with quotations from Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy, like Calixto Bieito did in Munich? Set it in a doomed space station, like Opéra de Lyon did in Edinburgh? Or is it better to settle for something more straightforward?

Old-fashioned in tone, off-puttingly cheery in structure, probably the least musically radical of Beethoven’s works, Fidelio – originally titled Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love – does not easily lend itself to reinterpretation. It is something of an anomaly: part political fable, part romance; half spoken, half sung; a play for voices written by an instrumental composer. Two hundred years after it was first staged, Beethoven’s only opera remains fundamentally lighthearted, unfashionable... and beloved. In light of this, the Grand Théâtre de Genève’s new production went for what is possibly the best approach: ignore all of these attempts to twist and transform an opera that is so stubbornly itself, and play it safe. Confident and comforting, the production easily won over the Swiss audience.

Act II finale © GTG | Carole Parodi
Act II finale
© GTG | Carole Parodi

This is not to say this production is without its insights or touches of modernity, though they mostly serve to underline the opera’s humour. Raimund Orfeo Voigt’s set is a simple grey, minimalist one, with a little excitement provided in the second act by an impressive rendering of a rocky pit. In the first scene, Jaquino stands checking CCTV cameras as alerts blaze across them: a smart, funny touch.

But when I say this is a conventional version, I’m really talking about Matthias Hartmann’s staging. This production is his first Fidelio, and I can't quite decide whether he's averse to risk, or whether he’s walking on eggshells out of respect for a classic. Nothing is reinterpreted, nothing is given an edge. I suspect he may be right to proceed with caution – avoiding the pitfalls of trying to make an opera into something it isn’t – but I did keep hoping for either a little more earnest emotional intensity or just a touch of irony. 

Detlef Roth (Pizarro), Albert Dohmen (Rocco), Elena Pankratova (Leonore), Siobhan Stagg (Marzelline) © GTG | Carole Parodi
Detlef Roth (Pizarro), Albert Dohmen (Rocco), Elena Pankratova (Leonore), Siobhan Stagg (Marzelline)
© GTG | Carole Parodi

The story is stripped of eroticism, comedic or otherwise: the characters often stand at opposite corners of the stage, and barely touch during the love scenes. The staging is essentially apolitical, as well, declining to imbue Leonore or Pizarro’s roles with extraneous or anachronistic values. Fidelio is not a subtle opera, and this version does not try to make it so – in fact, it goes quite far in the other direction. Leonore’s stage-whispered moments of private passion felt almost mimed in their obviousness. Marzelline’s performance of gender-confused heartbreak made the audience laugh out loud. 

Fidelio is often cited as an example of an instrumental composer struggling to write for the voice. Nonetheless, one of the most memorable passages is the rousing prisoners’ chorus on the theme of freedom – familiar ground for the composer, perhaps, and a convenient shorthand for the opera’s themes: justice, hope, redemption. The Grand Théâtre’s chorus delivered all this with gusto. Despite the overture lacking slightly in assurance, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande also gave an excellent performance under Alan Woodbridge’s enthusiastic direction. The brass section was on fine form, with particularly stellar horn solos. 

Elena Pankratova (Leonore) and Christian Elsner (Florestan) © GTG | Carole Parodi
Elena Pankratova (Leonore) and Christian Elsner (Florestan)
© GTG | Carole Parodi

As for the singers, they are an excellent cast altogether. In the opening quartet, Leonore and Marzelline sounded particularly lovely, tone soft and timbre perfectly blended: in fact, all of the ensemble scenes were remarkably tight. As Fidelio/Leonore, Elena Pankratova owned the stage, alternately strutting around and swooning with wide-eyed desperation. Her strong, luminous mezzo-soprano voice was wonderful throughout; her revelatory “Ich bin sein Weib!” moment a particular triumph. Unlike some of the other characters, we get the impression she knows this opera is funny – in her scenes, we are laughing with it, not at it. 

Albert Dohmen, as Rocco, also deserves a special mention for his comic delivery and splendid, rich baritone – both spoken and sung. The weak link of the production, unfortunately, was Christian Eisner’s Florestan, who went quite flat in his “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” A tricky aria, and perhaps a bit of bad opening night luck, but a shame nonetheless. His hearty reunion with Leonore redeemed him somewhat, however, ultimately personifying the spirit of this production – and perhaps of the opera – awkward, a little silly, yet very charming. 

***11