Making its first appearance at Longborough Opera in the festival’s twenty-year history, Beethoven’s single operatic venture was given a whacky and mostly insightful new spin. Any notions of a conventional 18th-century Spanish jail were swept aside in this radically off-the-wall but thought-provoking staging. Futuristic ideas, which might have come straight from Dr Who, were exploited to transform Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s original French libretto and provided a platform for universal questions about how we treat prisoners – especially those detained illegally. Love, fidelity and heroism – the opera’s emotional driving force – were still at the heart of this work, but it became clear that this rescue opera morphed too readily into a revenge opera, a concept imposed with little concern for Beethoven’s music.

Adrian Dwyer (Florestan) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Adrian Dwyer (Florestan)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Spearheading this bizarre update was Orpha Phelan and Madeleine Boyd, who added an intriguing and unwarranted backstory to create the revenge motive. This arises from wounding and permanent disabling Don Pizarro, cast as jailor and shady drugs baron, by a morally upright Florestan whose arrest consigns him to the prison’s feared “B-wing”. White-coated sidekicks preparing illicit packages were a distracting presence during the Overture, its music barely registering despite fine playing from the Longborough Festival Opera Orchestra under its Israeli-French conductor Gad Kadosh.

Distractions continued during Act 1 where a generator with flashing lights (and seemingly belonging to some alien-themed B movie) stood centre-stage amid further chemical preparations, rendering the work’s domestic angle almost unrecognisable. Phelan’s narrative on imprisonment finally emerged in a moving prisoner’s chorus where individuals had been attached to fluorescent tubes, like umbilical chords, and sedated. Mercifully, Act 2 gave rise to a bare stage, where Florestan might as well have been wearing an invisibility cloak so little did we see of him, thanks to Lighting Designer Wayne Dowdeswell who took the darkness to light theme a little too literally.

Members of the Longborough Festival Opera Chorus © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Members of the Longborough Festival Opera Chorus
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Along with filmic designs, this production had a bang-up-to-date English dialogue. For some, contemporary phrases such as “it’s good to go” may have jarred with the German-sung text, but it was at least in keeping with the Director’s concepts.

Vocally, this Fidelio has a strong team of singers, gratifyingly uniform in the delivery of solo and ensemble numbers. Elizabeth Atherton as Fidelio/Leonore was fully believable and luminously-voiced, with a warm and glorious top end which was especially notable in her recitative and aria “Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?”, which also drew some fine horn playing from the pit. Adrian Dwyer brought bright-toned anguish to Florestan’s soliloquy and formed a convincing partnership with Atherton in the breathtaking speed of “O namenlose Freude”.

Sam Furness (Jacquino) © Matthew WIlliams-Ellis
Sam Furness (Jacquino)
© Matthew WIlliams-Ellis

Simon Thorpe was an impressively thuggish Don Pizarro whose rich, chocolatey tones – seemingly unaffected by his wheelchair confinement – gave his lines an imposing strength. In “Jetzt, Alter, hat es Eile” he and John Paul Huckle, as Rocco, formed a powerful duo, as did Sam Furness as a keenly amorous Jaquino and Lucy Hall – a pure-voiced Marzelline – in their charming opening duet. Most memorable amongst the ensemble numbers was the Act 1 Quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar” where a moderated vibrato and near-perfect balance produced beautiful results – its sense of stillness a highlight of the entire evening.

From an exultant Overture through to a hard-driven finale Gad Kadosh, (making his Fidelio debut) propelled the score with a sweeping baton, and when not pushing too hard on the accelerator, found well-judged tempi that allowed instrumental cameos their moments of glory. What a shame that the distracting weight of ideas threatened to undermine Beethoven’s vision and his sublime music.