Frederic Wake-Walker’s staging of Fidelio has been waiting in the wings at Glyndebourne since being cancelled from the main festival when the pandemic hit in 2020. It won’t be heading out on tour with Don Pasquale and The Rake’s Progress, however. The huge panopticon with rotating cage, together with constant live video projections presumably make this impossible. And it is the combination of this vast but essentially fixed staging and the overly used video that leads to the fundamental problem in this production. One might argue that Beethoven doesn’t help for, despite the centrality to the story of Leonore’s endeavour, undercover as Fidelio, in order to rescue her beloved Florestan, it is hard to get a sense of their relationship when we don’t meet Florestan until Act 2.

Gertrude Thoma (Estella)
© Richard Hubert Smith

However, Wake-Walker’s staging, without the dialogue, leads to a lot of static, ‘stand and deliver’ singing from the key characters, relying on the video projections onto the outside of the cage for interest. This is not helped early in Act 1 as much of the singing happens well upstage, and is occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. Leonore and Florestan do finally get the opportunity to engage in Act 2, and Dorothea Herbert and Adam Smith make the most of this, with the most moving singing of the show. Beyond the video, the only other visible interest is provided by the outer cage moving back and forth – but this really only makes sense in the prisoners’ chorus (with wonderfully rich singing), when they are given a taste of the fresh air.

Callum Thorpe (Rocco), Adam Smith, Dorothea Herbert (Leonore) and Dingle Yandell (Don Pizarro)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Beethoven’s canonic quartet is surely one of the highlights of Act 1, and it certainly did not disappoint here musically, with well-balanced and blended singing from all four singers. The static staging is fine here, as Beethoven intentionally halts the action to allow the four characters to share their thoughts with us, and the video projections picking up close-ups of them highlights well their contrasting emotions. Carrie-Ann Williams’ Marzelline was passionate and intense, and Callum Thorpe’s rich-toned Rocco convinced, with some of the strongest acting beyond the static constraints. Gavan Ring gave Jaquino an added edge, showing him sucking up to the understated villainy of Dingle Yandell’s Pizarro.

Dorothea Herbert (Leonore) and The Glyndebourne Chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

And what of Wake-Walker’s addition of a new character, Estella, a primary school teacher investigating evidence of Leonore and Florestan’s involvement in underground freedom movement, Prometheus? Moments of newly scripted and strongly delivered monologues by Gertrude Thoma are interspersed throughout Act 1 (sometimes over the top of orchestral passages), replacing the spoken dialogue of the original. Some say the original dialogue is tricky to make work, but this confusing addition ultimately doesn’t fair any better. The back-story is largely forgotten and is essentially unresolved in Act 2 as the central action picks up.

Adam Smith (Florestan)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Act 2 opens with Florestan’s first appearance, alone in his prison cell, and here for the second time the video work was put to good use, with Smith’s crazed performance into the camera on the suspended rope projected large, now in colour, giving a real sense of the torment, despair and delirium of the abandoned prisoner. Smith’s opening piano high G was incredibly controlled, yet he was not afraid to use the strain of projecting Beethoven’s high tessitura above the orchestra to great effect. The dramatic moment of Fidelio’s intervention, saving Florestan, is confused by freeze frame projection of Pizarro pointing the gun at Fidelio but, once revealed, Leonore and Florestan’s reunion is powerful. Jonathan Lemalu’s Don Fernando was warm, but his place in the action is not given significant enough authority, leaving his presence somewhat underpowered. 

Ben Glassberg and the orchestra’s attention to detail was strong, and apart from Act 1 issues resulting from the deep staging, they avoided the very real possibility in Beethoven’s scoring of drowning out the singers. Glassberg also worked hard to keep the soloists together despite being widely spread apart and singing into video in some of the ensemble moment. An impressive set piece ends proceedings, as the women of the chorus join the men and the full cast, now wrapped in gold foil (not sure why, but it did finally add some welcome colour) for a suitably triumphant Beethovenian finish.