When Richard Wagner first saw Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, he wrote: “the heavens were open to me; I was transported, and adored the genius who had led me – like Florestan – from night and fetters into light and freedom.” Beethoven’s opera celebrated a courageous woman, Leonore, who by way of ingenuity and disguise, is able to secure the release of her husband from prison. Foremost, it pays tribute to loyalty and love within a marriage. Those themes suited an operatic genre popular around 1800 that contained spoken dialogue to show human actions stirred by philosophical tenets, but mixed up with lively roles and mistaken identities. And while the opera’s 1805 première in Vienna went badly, Fidelio met with great success after its second revival in 1814.

Brandon Jovanovich (Florestan), Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Christof Fischesser (Rocco) © Toni Suter (2013)
Brandon Jovanovich (Florestan), Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Christof Fischesser (Rocco)
© Toni Suter (2013)

Here in Zurich, almost 200 years later, Fidelio looks decidedly different. Andreas Homoki’s production has an empty, colourless shoebox as a set; all the action transpires without even a single prop. What’s more, the set and costumes stick to grey and black without exception. From the very start, I had to ask myself whether this was an opera, or a case of macular degeneration.

Defendants of Homoki’s radical production will argue that it’s all about the music, about the singing. I gladly credit Beethoven, a handful of the production’s principals, and the superb choirs – some 60 members strong – with a fine achievement there. Nevertheless, this Fidelio left me feeling visually impoverished, and the “no-set modus” wasn’t the only unexpected twist. The usual sequence of events has also been changed. The first scene is devoted to a short scuffle that ends with a pistol shot, killing the female protagonist, Leonore. At the end, just before the curtain, she again lies dead centre stage. Was what had transpired in the meantime simply a dead woman’s reverie? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Prisoners' Chorus © Toni Suter (2013)
The Prisoners' Chorus
© Toni Suter (2013)

Another of this production’s novelties is the omission of spoken dialogue that figured in Joseph Ferdinand Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke’s libretto. Far more peculiar, though, that desolate stage design. Without a single prison-related article, not even a cramped dirty corner for Florestan to fester in, the prison profile was hard to sustain, and the nondescript location put the cast at a considerable loss. Some tragedies, of course, are universal, but even with tremendous agility and poetic imagination, a body inside a box can hardly make a stage. What’s more, Fidelio's drama alone already has shortcomings. After their interaction in Act 1, for example, the conflicted lovers Marzelline and Jaquino are more or less forgotten; Beethoven gives the villainous Don Pizarro far too little to sing; and Don Fernando arrives in too late in the opera to make much of a mark.

At this revival, just before the curtain rose, we learned that South-African soprano Elza van den Heever, who would sing Leonore, was suffering a cold. It seemed her vocal performance in the first act was compromised less by that than by several instances of the choir and orchestra’s overpowering volumes. By the end of the second act, though, she was struggling, and at curtain, even gestured to her throat apologetically, having certainly put her fine instrument at risk to insure the show’s continuation.

Brandon Jovanovich (Florestan), Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Martin Gantner (Don Pizzaro) © Toni Suter (2013)
Brandon Jovanovich (Florestan), Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Martin Gantner (Don Pizzaro)
© Toni Suter (2013)

As Florestan, the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt gave a heart-wrenching “Gott, welch’ Dunkel hier” (God, what darkness’s here), but otherwise put only modest bravado into his role, and the chemistry he shared with his wife Leonore was somewhat colourless. It might sound a trifle, but the credibility of his suffering was also compromised by a black bandana over his eyes which, over time, bordered on the comical. The more compelling performances came from the lesser male roles: Christof Fischesser’s Rocco gave a consistently strong delivery; Martin Gantner, as the ruthless Don Pizarro, commanded an ominously overbearing, authoritarian presence. As the young Marzelline, Mélissa Petit was superbly coquettish vis-à-vis the disguised Leonore (Fidelio). As the lovesick Jaquino, Spencer Lang gave a handsome role debut. The quartet in which their two characters joined Rocco and Leonore at the end of Act 1, was one of the evening’s finest moments.

The three choirs also deserve accolades for being right on the mark vocally, even if their collective movements often seemed agitated or unscripted, and a couple of their members should be reminded not to overact. The Philharmonia Zürich, under conductor Simone Young’s baton, gave the score the very dress that this production’s staging sorely missed: a degree of pomp and circumstance. Then again, as music historians Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker contend, Fidelio is “a work of erratic genius with wonderful passages, but which, overall, makes little real sense”. That said, the Homoki production is in line with a venerable assessment.