Without wishing to labour the point, the coincidence of this concert staging of Fidelio at the Royal Festival Hall taking place directly after the election of a deeply divisive political figure and on the same day that hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets in protest was deeply delicious. In a January that, for many, has been bluer than usual, one couldn’t seek a better ‘feel-good’ opera. This performance launched the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival, and the concert staging seemed to have been adapted to accordingly.

Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO © Simon Jay Price
Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO
© Simon Jay Price

The elements of Daniel Slater’s staging themselves were not intrusive – a table and chairs at the front of the stage (handy for Marzelline to get some ironing done), a table at the rear with distressingly unused refreshments, and casual clothing for the cast (Don Pizarro’s black soul revealed by pairing suit trousers and shirt with white trainers) as well as, inexplicably, the orchestra. In the second half, props were removed, the orchestra returned to black and a dirty, handcuffed Florestan shuffled on. The cast moved amongst the orchestra without issue. The major flaw of the staging was the deployment of two narrators who regularly interrupted with comments that were at best superfluous and at worst inane. Fidelio doesn’t need any explanation; Beethoven makes us forcefully aware of its values and those of its characters. The narration, if anything, diluted the power of its message. Ango-Saxon etymology (one of many odd comments) is a fascinating subject, but a discursion into this belonged in the programme. Nor did it help that neither Simon Williams nor Helen Ryan seemed at all confident or rehearsed in their script, stuttering and interrupting each other with cringeworthy regularity.

Simon Williams, Helen Ryan and Anja Kampe © Simon Jay Price
Simon Williams, Helen Ryan and Anja Kampe
© Simon Jay Price

Anja Kampe’s Leonore was a total and triumphant assumption of the part. Sung in distinctly Wagnerian tones, her projection was excellent, diction was clear and while the very top of the voice was slightly shrill in “Abscheulicher!”, it relaxed later on and she offered a fine contribution to “O namenlose Freude!”. More than just technical ability though was her effortless colouring of the voice; tender, fierce, noble – nothing was lacking in Kampe’s vivid account. She was matched with an equally emotional Florestan in Robert Dean Smith, stepping in for the indisposed Michael König at short notice. The “Gott” in his opening cry “Gott! welch' Dunkel hier!” was held hauntingly, his voice easily convincing in its picture of a tortured, yet defiant prisoner. Though there was a touch of strain, forgivable in the circumstances, he gave an admirable account of some formidable writing. The voice was muscular, yet bright and he showed an appealingly sensitive way of phrasing. A very successful late arrival.

Robert Dean Smith © Simon Jay Price
Robert Dean Smith
© Simon Jay Price

I was very impressed with our Marzelline from Sofia Fomina. She sang with a warm and mellow soprano, showing a smooth line and decent articulation. Her “O wär ich schon mit dir vereint” was sung with a precise, unforced top and the voice had a memorable clarity and sweetness. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson started well as Rocco with a fluidly sung “Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben”, but seemed to wane as the first act proceeded. His lower register seemed at times a little undersupported, but he rallied for a more powerful performance in the second half. Pavlo Hunka, jumping in to replace Christopher Purves as Don Pizarro, was not seen at his best here, struggling to make himself heard over his colleagues and the orchestra. Tenor Ben Johnson as Jaquino was also unusually underpowered.

London Voices delivered one of the most moving moments of the evening at the end of Act I, appearing in the stalls doors before limping forward while giving a sombre “O welche Lust” full of feeling and depth. The London Philharmonic was not at its best in the first act, the horns being noticeably weak, but was on better form in the second half. One highlight though was principal flautist Juliette Bausor, about whom I have commented before and whose playing here was typically deft and stirring. Jurowski’s reading of the score was solid rather than inspired, perhaps hindered by the odd staging.