At the Vienna State Opera, opera productions several decades old coexist with new productions which are often of a more abstract nature, although the latter are seldom as innovative and shocking as in Germany. Vienna's Fidelio is old, the product of the famous and long-term collaboration of Otto Schenk with his stage designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen.  The latter died in Vienna on 2 June, and this revival was dedicated to his memory.

Revival of <i>Fidelio</i> at Wiener Staatsoper © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Revival of Fidelio at Wiener Staatsoper
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The staging was simple and consisted of large wooden beams that sometimes framed the scene or represented prison walls. Scene changes were relatively swift and efficient to minimize the disruption of the musical flow although the lowering of the curtain between scenes invariably induced some audience applause. In the second act, the applause as the Leonore Overture was about to begin before the final triumphant scene caused the conductor Ádám Fischer to yell at the audience to be quiet. Fischer and the orchestra then twice acknowledged the huge applause from the audience at the conclusion of the overture.

Fischer led the performance with his customary energy and dedication without the use of the score and by mouthing every word as if to sing along with his cast. The Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera was in splendid form, with many veteran players in the pit. Strings and woodwind sections carry the majority of the music, and both were excellent, responding to Fischer’s every move. Fidelio was performed at the reopening of the Vienna State Opera in 1955 after a long period of post-war restoration of the opera house, and the special affinity for the work by both the performers and the Viennese audience was palpable with every note.

Nina Stemme made the role of Fidelio/Leonore her own, with her initially restrained interactions with the jailor Rocco and his daughter Marzelline, who is in love with Fidelio, as she has concealed her female identity to seek her missing husband Florestan. In private, she became a passionate and determined Leonore. The aria “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” was splendidly sung with warm and yet bright sound evenly and effortlessly produced; Stemme invested every word with meaning, and as the aria came to a close, she added a burst of energy and volume to signal Leonore’s determination. There was no scooping or reaching for the high notes in Stemme’s singing. She was able to negotiate the registers without break with her brilliant and yet burnished voice. It was another triumph for the soprano who truly becomes every character she portrays in voice and acting.

Florestan is a punishing tenor role with the famous opening aria in Act II "Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” Robert Dean Smith sang with a pleasing and elegant voice and was otherwise a solid partner to Stemme’s more nuanced and passionate Leonore. The pair’s duet "O namenlose Freude!” was appropriately exciting and joyful. Jochen Schmeckenbecher made the most of the villain Don Pizarro’s brief moments on stage with strong singing and stage presence. Sebastian Holecek was also impressive in his even briefer appearance as the governor Don Fernando with an impassioned singing.  Lars Woldt was an unusually light voiced and youthful Rocco but was effective in his supporting role. Norbert Ernst brought his bright and crisp tenor to the role of Jaquino, and Annika Gerhards was a sweet and charming Marzelline.

Fidelio is not an easy opera to sing. Beethoven struggled with writing for voices. His strength with instrumental writing clearly shows throughout. The two chorus scenes, the prisoners’ chorus in Act I and the concluding chorus in Act II were both the highlights of the opera, with voices and instruments successfully combined. The excellent chorus of Vienna State Opera reminded the audience that the only opera written by Beethoven carries the universal and always relevant message of freedom and peace for the world today.