With the pedigree of its director, this production of Beethoven’s Fidelio was bound to be provocative. Certainly the most talked about new production in the New National Theatre Tokyo’s 20th anniversary season, Katharina Wagner’s Fidelio was unveiled on Sunday. Currently she directs very little outside Bayreuth and rarely tackles non-Wagner works. Moreover, she was quite cagey about the concept of this production at the press conference, even holding a closed dress rehearsal, so there was a palpable sense of anticipation (or was it apprehension?) on the opening afternoon.

Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Don Pizarro), Ricarda Merbeth (Leonore) and Stephen Gould (Florestan) © Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo
Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Don Pizarro), Ricarda Merbeth (Leonore) and Stephen Gould (Florestan)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

She certainly crammed in a huge amount of visual ideas to this modern-dress production, to the point that it could have been distracting. From the outset, she made busy use of a split-level, multiple-room set (designed by Marc Löhrer) which places Rocco’s house on the upper two levels and Florestan’s prison cell on the lower level (where he is visible throughout Act One, drawing idealized images of Leonore on the walls in chalk and then erasing them again in desperation). A further basement level is revealed in the “Prisoner’s Chorus” scene. Wagner also threw in other suggestive imagery such as Marzelline in a pink Disney princess-like dress playing dolls and fantasising about a happy marriage, Leonore putting on men’s clothes and wig in her room, and the violent governor Don Pizarro secretly fetishising a portrait of Leonore – perhaps his real motive for wanting Florestan dead. But generally in Act One, these ideas were aligned with Beethoven’s music.

Emi Ishibashi (Marzelline) © Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo
Emi Ishibashi (Marzelline)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

But the real subversive plot twist came in the Act Two rescue scene. In the original plot, Leonore, disguised as a man, saves her imprisoned husband Florestan from his impending death at the hands of the tyrannical Pizarro. However, in this production, instead of Leonore rescuing Florestan in the nick of time, Pizarro actually stabs both Florestan and Leonore with a knife before the arrival of the inspecting minister Don Fernando (as a further twist, Florestan had slit his wrist before the arrival of Leonore). Pizarro then bricks up the doorway to the prison – while the orchestra performs the customary Leonore Overture no. 3 before the final scene – and the entombed Florestan and Leonore bleed to death. But then how to reconcile this sinister change of plot with Beethoven’s jubilant chorus of justice and the faithfulness of Leonore?

Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Don Pizarro) © Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo
Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Don Pizarro)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Before coming to the final twist though, let’s talk about the musical side of the production. Overall, the cast was excellent, led by Stephen Gould and Ricarda Merbeth – both regulars at the NNTT and also at Bayreuth. Gould plunged into “Gott! welch ein Dunkel hier!” with piercing intensity, and in the aria his big, warm helden voice soared easily above the orchestra. Merbeth also sung with ease and her impassioned “Abscheulicher!” was a vocal highlight. Their voices blended well in the duets too. Rocco was sympathetically played by house veteran Hidekazu Tsumaya and Emi Ishibashi was a lively and bright-voiced Marzelline, shining in her Act One aria that leads into the sublime Quartet. Meanwhile, baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky played Pizarro with sheer venom.

At the helm was NNTT’s outgoing Artistic Director Taijiro Iimori, who chose this work as his farewell production and who invited Katharina Wagner. In Japan he is known as a Wagnerian conductor, and his tenure will be remembered for the Ring cycle he delivered over the last three seasons. Here he accompanied the singers with a sensitive touch whilst bringing out details of articulation and phrasing from the orchestra (the excellent Tokyo Symphony Orchestra); in particular there were moments of stillness and beauty in the reflective scenes (the Quartet and Florestan’s monologue, for example). In general his tempi were expansive – certainly no hint of period performance with him – which itself is not a problem, but at times the music lacked forward momentum because Iimori’s dynamic range is quite limited and he rarely goes full throttle. Especially in the finale, I longed for a punchier sound from the tutti forces.

Marc Löhrer's split-level set © Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo
Marc Löhrer's split-level set
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

But perhaps the finale sounded less triumphant because of the cynical ending of this production. When the minister Don Fernando finally appears (I couldn’t figure out whether he was complicit with Pizarro), the prisoners in the basement are liberated. But then Pizarro appears disguised as Florestan with a fake Leonore and they lead the prisoners out into the light and “freedom” – but the final imagery implies that this too is an illusion.

Katharina Wagner is not the first to challenge Beethoven’s idealistic ending in Fidelio. I can understand that she and her dramaturg Daniel Weber consider Beethoven’s idealism too simplistic for our disillusioned modern age, and that she wanted to present an alternative, more realistic interpretation without a clear conclusion. I think her approach is a valid one. Yet ultimately, especially in the finale, her cynicism undermined Beethoven’s glorious music and that I found hard to reconcile with.

****1