Fidelio may be a footnote in the larger context of Beethovenʼs incomparable oeuvre, but in Prague it traces a stellar musical history. The first production of the opera outside Vienna was staged in Prague in November 1814 with Carl Maria von Weber at the podium. Bedřich Smetana led an 1870 production at the Provisional Theatre (the forerunner to todayʼs National Theatre), Gustav Mahler conducted the first performance at the Estates Theatre in 1886, Adolf Čech conducted a series of Czech-language stagings at the National Theatre starting in 1887, and Alexander Zemlinsky revived it at the New German Theatre (now the State Opera) in 1911.

Melanie Diener (Leonore) and Daniel Frank (Florestan)
© Hana Smejkalová

Itʼs unlikely any of them would recognize the new production at the Estates Theatre, where Beethoven reportedly hoped to take it after the operaʼs disastrous 1805 première in Vienna. (He would have fared no better in Prague, according to Weber: “They could not understand all that was great in this music. It was enough to drive one mad.”) Bulgarian director Vera Nemirova has turned Fidelio into a verismo piece with strong overtones of totalitarianism. The setting is contemporary industrial, the passions are earthy and the themes are loss and vulnerability rather than heroism and romance. 

Not one to let an idle minute pass onstage, Nemirova sets the tone during the opening overture, with Leonore (Melanie Diener) taking the stage alone to transform into a man – taping her breasts flat, exchanging her dress for a baggy suit and adding a bit of street cred with a stocking cap. Almost all the costumes are working-class, in particular Rocco (Oleg Korotkov) in farmerʼs overalls, and have that worn, outdated look typical of communist-era fashion. The drab garb matches the atmosphere. Leonore steps into a world of deceit and oppression, not bravely but fearfully, like a resister always on the verge of being discovered. 

Oleg Korotkov (Rocco) and Melanie Diener (Leonore)
© Hana Smejkalová

Marzelline (Felicitas Fuchs) offers a cheery if ridiculous counterpoint, so smitten with Leonore/Fidelio that she nearly brings herself to orgasm in an inspired roll on the floor with her/his jacket. Nemirova likes to use props, and soon the dominant one in this production is paper – voluminous files that Leonore rifles through in search of her husband Florestanʼs, and a substantial pile of paperwork in his cell. Both Leonore and Florestan (Daniel Frank) fill the air with blizzards of flying paper in their searches, and if thatʼs not enough to demonstrate the tyranny of bureaucracy, when they finally embrace in his cell, itʼs atop the pile of paper.

Nemirova also has a mischievous streak. When Leonore finally reveals herself itʼs by ripping open her shirt, which drew surprised gasps and laughter from the audience, even with a modest covering underneath. And for no apparent reason, the trumpet fanfare announcing the timely arrival of the minister who will set everything right in the second act is played by a nearly naked musician who pops out of the hole that was meant to be Florestanʼs grave.

More than anything, though, Nemirova likes pregnant moments and unanswered questions. The first act ends with Fidelio and Don Pizarro (Sebastian Holecek) in a threatening face-off cut short by a descending divider and the curtain. The finale is even more inconclusive, with Florestan vacant and broken by his time in prison, and Leonore still pensive and worried while the chorus dances wildly and sings in celebration around them. If this was a victory itʼs taken a terrible toll, and despite the glowing assurances of the minister, Don Fernando (Paul Armin Edelman), thereʼs no sense that nobility and justice have prevailed, just the relief and release of a temporary triumph in an endless struggle.

Melanie Diener (Leonore)
© Hana Smejkalová

Though in good voice, Diener seemed a bit lost in the title role – which was perhaps exactly what Nemirova wanted. Fuchs, a strong singer and actress, provided sprightly comic touches, and Holecek was thoroughly evil from his very first notes, the kind of villain you love to hate. The choral work was outstanding, with the State Opera Chorus moving seamlessly and convincingly from the dirge and sackcloth of prisoners to the happy abandon of the closing revelers. And conductor Andreas Sebastian Weiser deserves special credit for a bright, exuberant performance in the pit. With the State Opera under reconstruction for the past two years, Weiser has shepherded his ensemble through a succession of temporary venues, always with poise and alacrity. 

Ultimately, this production will not be added to the list of its illustrious forebears. But as an echo of dark times and bellwether of their potential return, itʼs spot-on.