With its series focus on Beethoven, it makes sense that the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra chose Fidelio as its Opera In Concert for this year. Fidelio is indeed a masterwork though it suffers somewhat from trying to be everything at the same time; at once a tale of ordinary human emotions, a paean to marital love and a call to freedom and liberty for all people. To encompass all of these, it really needs a performance of exceptional vision and charisma, something that was only fitfully achieved on this occasion.

Giordano Bellincampi conducts the APO (2019)
© Adrian Malloch

Many of the most memorable moments were courtesy of the orchestra itself. From the outset, conductor Giordano Bellincampi presided over a fleet and crisp performance, savage accents on the downbeats giving the overture an exciting propulsion. Overall, this was a driven performance, exhilarating in its dramatic moments though a little more relaxation in some places might have been preferable. Nevertheless, Bellincampi was able to create a gorgeous glow of sound as the ravishing quartet opened or at the glorious “O Gott! Welch ein Augenblick” moment in the Act 2 finale. What I appreciated most was the clarity of texture, sounding sometimes more like a chamber ensemble than an orchestra, bringing many instrumental details to the fore. One might quibble with some of the mannered rubato in the instrumental solos, such as the oboe in Marzelline’s aria, though these were so beautifully done it mattered little. Most moving were the finales of each of the two acts, with the balance between choral, solo and orchestral contributions ideally balanced. 

Simon O'Neill
© Albert Comper Photography

The standout singer was tenor Simon O’Neill as Florestan. He impressed from his initial entrance in the second act, his first note emerging from near-inaudibility from within Beethoven’s instrumental texture and slowly swelling to fill the whole hall. His trumpet-like tones were suitably manic in his following hallucination of Leonore and rang out over the chorus in the final ensemble but he also showed the ability to fine down his voice to caress the lovely melody line of “Euch werde Lohn”. By comparison, Kirstin Sharpin was relatively low-key in the title role, surprisingly placid for one who was risking it all to save her husband’s life. Her voice certainly had amplitude beyond the reach of the rest of cast, aside from O’Neill. But she didn’t seem fully in command vocally for much of the evening, particularly noticeable in the exposed writing of her “Abscheulicher!” aria, in which she came to grief somewhat in the treacherous final phrases. She did come alive dramatically and vocally in the final confrontation with Pizarro and the high note on “Töt erst sein Weib!” was rock solid and huge, fearlessly hurled out into the hall. What this performance lacked most of all, though, was something more specific vocally and dramatically to make the character’s motivation more believable.

The APO in Auckland Town Hall (archive)
© Adrian Malloch

The rest of the cast acquitted themselves well. The best of them was Phillip Rhodes as the malevolent Pizarro, with a beautiful round baritone that he used to sail through the extremes of his vengeance aria without strain, yet still giving the character’s baleful personality its due. Paul Whelan, though a bit woolly of tone, had a genial presence as Rocco and James Ioelu brought an attractive flicker-vibrato to the short deus ex machina role of Don Fernando. The Marzelline and Jaquino were a well-matched pair, with Natasha Wilson getting to show off her sweet-sounding upper extension in the many ensembles in which Marzelline has the highest line.

Though a concert performance, there was some degree of stage direction, with a few relevant props (knives, guns, a laundry basket), dimmer lighting in Florestan’s dungeon and the singers utilising the space both in front of and behind the orchestra. This last strategy certainly helped to create a more dramatic space for the singers to work with but at the same time also limited their effectiveness at times. For example, with the very opening of the production placing Marzelline and Jaquino behind the orchestra, it constrained both the ability of the audience to hear their slimmer voices over the orchestra and also to connect with these characters at the beginning of the story.