The concept of freedom is at the heart of Opera North's current production of Fidelio. As soon as you open your programme, you are encouraged by the company's General Director Richard Mantle to consider Beethoven's only opera as having something to say about the struggle for liberty that has been taking place in the Middle East over the past few months.“Opera is perfectly placed to convey the personal experiences of individuals caught up in larger social or political events,” he writes, and it is easy to see why Fidelio, with its prison setting and eventual triumph of good over evil, lends itself particularly well to a comparison with contemporary global events.

Steven Harrison (Florestan) and Emma Bell (Leonore) © Clive Barda
Steven Harrison (Florestan) and Emma Bell (Leonore)
© Clive Barda

The opera tells the story of Leonore, a woman who disguises herself as a male prison warder (Fidelio) in order to track down her husband Florestan, who has been incarcerated by the evil prison governor Pizarro. With the help of the head warder Rocco, she locates Florestan and saves his life, but faces a number of challenges along the way, most notably the romantic advances of Rocco's daughter Marzelline, who has no idea of Fidelio's true identity.

In this modern, Tim Albery-directed production, which was first performed by Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994, we are steered towards the darker, more serious themes and away from any amusement that could potentially arise from the gender-based confusion. Designer Stuart Laing has most of the early action of the opera taking place in tiny box-like rooms, around which the rest of the stage is curtained off. I must insert a warning here- if you are tempted to book a seat, make sure it's not in the balcony. The higher up in the theatre you are, the less box-based action you will see, and I spent most of Act I unable to view the singers' heads, or anything that was taking place towards the rear of the stage.

In theory, however, the box idea is a good one, conveying the desired effect of claustrophobia. They extend the notion of imprisonment beyond the characters who are officially incarcerated (Marzelline, for example, spends her time in a box, ironing a seemingly endless number of men's shirts) and they enhance the feeling of freedom when the larger, mountain-range inspired sets are eventually introduced and the prisoners are given the opportunity to escape from their cells. The generic prison uniforms combined with bright, contemporary costumes for the 'free' characters serve as a reminder that the action of the opera could easily be taking place anywhere in the modern world.

This costume concept is used most successfully for Pizarro, with bass-baritone Andrew Foster Williams creating the feeling of faceless, corporate evil in an expensive suit and permanent sunglasses. He delivers the hugely dramatic aria Ha! Welch ein Augenblick with a power that is intentionally at odds with his lack of physical energy. Sitting casually at his desk, he boomed the famous 'Triumph!' with little more than a flick of his letter-opener to remind us of his murderous intentions. His vocal performance is undoubtedly one of the highlights of this Fidelio, but there are no weak links in the cast, and every performance, from Jeremy White's warm, fatherly Rocco to American tenor Steven Harrison's widely anticipated Florestan, is a joy.

Making her role début as Leonore/Fidelio is the acclaimed soprano Emma Bell, who suits the character perfectly. Her voice is full of rich colour and emotion, and she easily communicates the necessary feelings of fear, bravery and joy. It is also a very powerful voice, well suited to an operatic heroine prepared to embark on such a dangerous journey. When paired with Fflur Wyn's lovely, lyrical Marzelline during Mir ist so wunderbar Bell's vocal strength really stands out, and her solo aria Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin? was one of the most moving aspects of the production.

The musical highlight of this Fidelio, however, is the combination of Sir Richard Armstrong's conducting and the wonderful sound of Opera North's fabulous chorus, who always manage to sound much greater than their number. Their first outing for O welche Lust was extremely beautiful, and their voices, when combined with the large, mountainous backdrop, lifted the opera from its claustrophobic atmosphere. By the end of Fidelio, when the prisoners are set free and the chorus doubles in size for Heil sei dem Tag! and Wer ein holdes Weib errungen the wealth of voices and joyous, uplifting music definitely have the power to stir those thoughts on the notion of freedom that Opera North had hoped they would.