Andreas Homoki’s production of Beethoven sole opera raises eyebrows. Granted, it features a lively and varied score and in its revival here in Zurich, the soloists and choir give stellar vocal performances. But having done away with all props and any location, with any legitimate stage set at all, in fact, this production was pretty hard to love.

Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Andreas Schager (Florestan) © Herwig Prammer
Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Andreas Schager (Florestan)
© Herwig Prammer

Originally entitled, Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love, the Fidelio that premiered in Vienna in 1805 was an heroic story of a brave woman who risks her own life to rescue her beloved husband from death in prison.

As when Homoki's 2013 production had premiered, German-Italian soprano Anja Kampe once again sang the title role. While her voice is a powerhouse that simply electrified the house, the staging did her no favours. She disguised herself as a man in the first act to enter the prison where Florestan has been incarcerated. But having cast off her own dress, she sang for some time first in her silk chemise, which did not give her a visual advantage. Moreover, for lack of any props, the singer was left scurrying back and forth across the empty stage almost like a furtive pointer on a blank computer screen.

In large part, however, one can attribute staging malaise here to Henrik Ahr's set itself. Described by one critic as a shoe box lying on its side, the entire surface of the container is painted a pale blue-grey, such that the stage is entirely void of decoration. There is, of course, the obvious equation: a prison life is an empty life, but that alone does not an opera make. The set’s singular advantage is that the container’s back wall can be raised and lowered and, as such, used as a ramp for the choir to come on and retreat from the stage. And inasmuch as Barbara Drosihn’s costumes had all of the singers in black, their staggered appearances over the lip of the ramp as they crept into the scene were like those of the insects or rats we associate with prisons and dungeons. Grisly as the association was, it made for made some good animation.

<i>Fidelio</i> © Herwig Prammer
Fidelio
© Herwig Prammer

Against all odds, then, the singers paid tremendous tribute to Beethoven’s score. Kampe’s Leonore, for example, repeatedly underscored her couplet: “a rainbow still shines down on me”. And if anyone can “derive... inner strength from love,” then the soprano showed us that muscle again and again. As Don Pizarro, governor of the prison, German baritone Wolfgang Koch lent heft to a role he sang with great authority. As the prison guard, Rocco, Dimitry Ivashchenko also had tremendous presence, his resonant bass lending solid ground to his debut role here in the Zurich house. The aria in which he touts the mercies of gold, “If gold coins are jingling in your pocket... you're holding Fate captive”, was a timely glimmer of hope to those both on and off the stage.

Wolfgang Koch (Don Pizarro) and Andreas Schager (Florestan) © Herwig Prammer
Wolfgang Koch (Don Pizarro) and Andreas Schager (Florestan)
© Herwig Prammer

Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sang the role of Florestan, a part ripe with woe. Alone in his cell, he sings, “What darkness here!” as “I bear my tortures”. Yet the blindfold he wore until the very last few minutes of the opera forced him to fumble and stumble about, making something oddly slapstick of what should have imparted oppression and neglect. An even greater enigma, though, came at the very end of the production. Thanks to the decree by the King’s Minister (the fine Oliver Widmer), Leonore is celebrating her husband’s release from prison with the animated crowd. “Never can the rescue of a husband be praised more highly!” they sing. The cheery crew surrounds the reunited couple, but then recedes, and drifts behind what, surprisingly, is revealed as Leonore’s corpse, spread-eagled, face down. There’s a bit of a bite in that one; the libretto, namely, has the faithful, happy wife survive.

Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Andreas Schager (Florestan) © Herwig Prammer
Anja Kampe (Leonore) and Andreas Schager (Florestan)
© Herwig Prammer

Markus Poschner conducted the Philharmonia Zürich with animated enthusiasm, and the players’ precision and tightly paced quick-step were a delight to the ear. The choir, newly under the direction of Janko Kastelic, also made a robust and well-acted contribution.

**111