Beethoven’s music is always what makes Fidelio stunning. This is true of Cologne Opera’s Fidelio in Staatenhaus am Rheinpark, a temporary home while Cologne’s Opera House undergoes refurbishments. This production is a remarkably enjoyable celebration of the beauty of Beethoven’s music. Fidelio took him a long time to complete, with the composer quoted as saying, “This opera will win me a martyr’s crown”. It is a story of a heroic, faithful wife having the courage to rescue her husband from prison and defeat the tyrant imprisoning him. The plot is basic, the characters paper-thin. Yet the music is just amazing.

Stefan Cerny (Rocco) and Emma Bell (Leonore) © Paul Leclaire
Stefan Cerny (Rocco) and Emma Bell (Leonore)
© Paul Leclaire

The Gürzenich Orchestra under Alexander Rumpf surprised, beginning with the Leonore Overture No. 3. They played it beautifully and sensitively, yet I couldn’t help wondering whether in choosing it they were suggesting Beethoven got it wrong, or using it as an opportunity to showcase their undoubted skill. While a much classier composition, I feel it lacks the punchiness of Beethoven’s Fidelio overture.

Martin Koch and Ivana Rusco made a good team as Jaquino and Marzelline, Koch full of hope and Rusco a cheerfully youthful voice. Her face lit up as she sang of her love for Fidelio, and her voice became vibrant. These were pithy songs well sung, setting the base line for the richness of the music to come. Eagerly awaited was the Canon Quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar”, where Marzelline, Leonore, Rocca and then Jaquino, standing steadily, their voices blending in harmony, sang of the effect on each of them of Marzelline’s love for Fidelio. It was a magic moment.

Stefan Cerny sang Rocco the gaoler, and his resonant bass voice was inspiring all night. With Leonore and Marzelline holding hands he sang compellingly of the need for money to live on, eventually placing his hand over theirs. But Leonore had an ulterior motive – to get into the prison dungeon. Fidelio has its villain, prison governor Don Pizarro, cleverly sung by bass-baritone Samuel Youn, who seemed to enjoy the role. He portrayed a man lacking compassion and dangerous to cross, who almost spat out his words, and he was smarmy as he bribed Rocco to dig Florestan’s grave, his singing portraying threat and anger.

Samuel  Youn (Don Pizarro) © Paul Leclaire
Samuel Youn (Don Pizarro)
© Paul Leclaire

On the other hand Leonore, the heroic wife, has much inspirational music to sing, none more challenging than her “Abscheuliucher!” denouncement of Pizarro and confirmation of her mission, affirming the “strength I derive from faithfulness and love”. To this role guest artist Emma Bell brought much experience, including other Fidelio performances, as well as Mozart and Wagner operas. She was a great tour de force.

David Pomeroy, the imprisoned victim Florestan, appeared in Act II, which began with gloomy mood music taking us down to the deepest depths of the prison. His first word was an extended “Göt”, pouring out his desperate resignation as if to say “God, it’s about time you listened to me, for I am at breaking point in this dark place of terrifying silence”. His singing grew hopeful and enlivened, feeling his angel, Leonore, was coming. Indeed, Rocco and Leonore then descended to dig his grave. There they gave him bread and wine, and some have suggested a reference to the nourishment of the eucharist before he rises from the tomb. Whatever the allusion, Pomeroy’s voice then grew stronger. The following trio of Florestan with Leonore and Rocco “Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten” thrilled with excitement for something good to happen, conveying a feeling of hope.

Emma Bell (Leonore) and David Pomeroy (Florestan) © Paul Leclaire
Emma Bell (Leonore) and David Pomeroy (Florestan)
© Paul Leclaire

Hope became a timely reality. With pistol in hand, Leonore was fending off evil Pizarro from murdering her husband when the trumpet sounded, announcing the arrival of Don Fernando, the minister, their saviour. Tune and voices proclaimed strains of freedom. Bell and Pomeroy burst into a brilliant paean of happiness “O namenlose Freude!” radiating the thrill of their joy, relief and hope pouring out as they reunited, intently gazing into each other’s eyes.

Fidelio has two great choral interludes. The prisoners “O welche Lust” in Act I proclaimed their release into the freedom of the open air, shading their eyes from the sunlight, standing in amazement. One sang encouragingly of faith, hope and trust, another of suspicion. Rather than full throated, they took a more hesitant approach, adding rich significance to their singing. The second choral interlude concludes Act II. Gawking neighbours joined with the prisoners, and the resultant “Heil se idem Tag” was superlative. One hoped they could have gone on and on singing, just for us to have the enjoyment of the sound of voice and orchestra combined. At heart it was praise for Leonore’s success in rescuing and reuniting with Florestan. As the opera ended in a wall of song, both characters stood rejoicing, central to it all.