At the age of 81, German director Harry Kupfer is hardly an enfant terrible. However, many would argue that the terrible part of the epithet is still apposite. After an absence of 15 years, Kupfer’s association with Daniel Barenboim was renewed with a production of Fidelio at the distinctly ungemütlich Schillertheater in Berlin. Essentially, it was a re-working of his problematic mis-en-scène at the Komische Oper in 1997.

This is a trite “play within a play” conceit with music students preparing to stage the opera. It is unclear when and why the actual performance takes over from the rehearsal and vice-versa. This was particularly irksome in the superb “Mir ist so Wunderbar” quartet which was sung (with piano-vocal scores in hand) by the protagonists standing round the piano as if enjoying a casual Sunday night sing-along. In case anyone in the audience didn’t know the opera was by Beethoven, a large bust of the composer was placed on top of a Bechstein concert grand. The curtain rises to reveal Hans Schavernoch’s beautifully painted trompe l’oeil of Vienna's Musikverein with said Bechstein in the foreground. What this illustrious concert hall has to do with the Sitzprobe of an opera, only Kupfer can clarify. The backdrop abruptly collapses to reveal an enormous grey granite wall covered with prison graffiti in several scripts including Cyrillic. Clearly the setting is a long way from 18th-century Spain. 

The directional dichotomy between rehearsal and performance was especially jarring in Act II when Florestan wanders around the stage during the despairing “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” scena. It is only later that the prisoner ties the chains onto himself in some kind of masochistic perversion of “Meine Pflicht hab’ ich getan”. At the triumphant "Heil sei dem Tag!" finale, the Musikverein backdrop returns, as do the ubiquitous vocal scores, with chorus and soloists stretched across the stage in concert version fashion, which was not far from the truth.

Musically things were more satisfactory, although Barenboim’s preference for the less familiar Leonore Overture no. 2 is questionable, notwithstanding that it was in Beethoven’s original 1805 partitura. As this music was essentially rewritten as the Leonore Overture no. 3 in 1814, the customary lengthy orchestral interlude in Act II was obviously omitted. Also missing was the opening duet between Jaquino and Marzelline as the opera began with Marzelline’s aria. There was also a lot of text deleted, although not quite the total amputation of Claus Guth’s staging in Salzburg.

Much of the casting seemed a bit like an old (in all senses of the word) friends’ reunion. Falk Struckmann has been snarling Don Pizarro for years and although the voice often tends to lose focus, when he actually hits the note, it is impressive and potent. Veteran bass Roman Trekel made a poor showing of Don Fernando as the stimme has long since lost its sheen. Wearing a dapper dinner jacket, he looked as if he had just left a cocktail party across the road at the Imperial. At 71, the even more venerable Matti Salminen sang a dramatically detached and vocally uneven Rocco. There were traces of his former formidable expertise, especially in the low register, but phrasing was patchy and there was barely a discernable cantilena. A remarkable resemblance to Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon did little to improve the credibility of the characterization. Evelin Novak enjoyed success as a feisty Marzelline, and Florian Hoffmann repeated his engaging Jaquino from La Scala but with far less charm.

Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sang the punishing role of Florestan with extraordinary power and a bright, forward-placed voice reminiscent of René Kollo. More dynamic subtlety would have been desirable although his stentorian upper range is indisputable. Fidelio was sung by Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund who, despite Kupfer’s dilatory direction, brought commendable dramatic insight and sensitivity to the role. Phrasing was inherently musical and the leaps in “Komm Hoffnung” rock-solid with even semiquaver scale passages. The fearfully exposed top B flat on “Tödt’ erst sein Weib!” was nailed with a Nilsson-esque ping.  

Barenboim’s tempi were consistently attentive to the innumerable graduations in the score with elegant rubato and crisp instrumental articulation. The luscious cello opening to “Mir ist so Wunderbar” was refulgent to the extreme and the “Wer ein holdes Weib errungen” chorus galloped along with only minimal lapses of synchronisation between stage and pit. Barenboim coaxed some fine playing from the Berlin Staatskapelle although the exquisite oboe solo at Leonore’s “O welch ein Augenblick’ was surprisingly strident. The relatively small Deutsche Staatsoper chorus sang with absolutely superlative diction and fine dynamic control.

Despite all good musical intentions, not even Barenboim could save this production from the charge of banality and directional eccentricity. The enfant terrible has not lost his touch.