There can hardly be an opera other than Fidelio where a singer’s very first note is so eagerly anticipated: the opening G of “Gott, welch Dunkel hier”, a chained-up Florestan bemoaning the sterile darkness of his dungeon, has become a pièce de résistance for Heldentenors. In yesterday’s concert performance, Stuart Skelton held the note for a full ten seconds, swelling it from a mezzo piano start to thrilling full throttle. If you’ve heard Skelton do this before or heard his cry of “Wälse!” in Die Walküre, you’ll have known what was coming. If you haven’t… well, there were audible gasps in the audience around me. (For Fidelio nerds: Skelton’s version is closer to Kaufmann than Vickers, but he chooses not to start with Kaufmann’s extreme pianissimo. And by the way, the score contains neither a crescendo nor even a pause).

Ricarda Merbeth and Stuart Skelton © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Ricarda Merbeth and Stuart Skelton
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

You need big voices to do opera-in-concert successfully at the Royal Albert Hall, and Skelton certainly qualifies. David Soar, who sang Don Fernando, also has a big voice, but we only get to hear him close to the end of the opera, while Florestan is also absent from Act 1. The other big voice on the playbill, bass Brindley Sherratt, was indisposed, and that meant that Act 1 was short of vocal firepower. Ricarda Merbeth in the title role, Louise Alder as Marzelline, Benjamin Hulett as Jaquino and James Creswell, the late replacement for Sherratt as the gaoler Rocco, have pleasant voices, characterful voices, refined voices; all were able to make themselves heard, but none had the extra power in reserve to be able to step up the excitement. Detlef Roth, as the villain Don Pizarro, fell short of that, being often inaudible.

Juanjo Mena © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Juanjo Mena
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Throughout Act 1, Juanjo Mena kept the BBC Philharmonic on a tight rein and ensured excellent balance with the singers. Beethoven’s orchestration is delicate and varied, and the orchestra showed perfect poise, each component ringing through with clarity. The sheer beauty of Beethoven’s score came through time and again, especially in the ensemble numbers: the great quartet was exactly the highlight it should be, where the different voice types were perfectly blended. The prisoners’ chorus had heart-swelling loveliness. But the whole thing had something of a feel of restrained elegance – decidedly classical rather than romantic. Given that the plot is one of high drama – a woman desperate to save her husband from starving to death in prison – a dose of extra intensity would have been welcome, whether in the serious passages or in the comic relief ones with the hapless Jaquino or the down-to-earth Rocco.

I’m actually more than happy to see Fidelio in concert rather than staged. Beethoven doesn’t really have the feel for the dramatic moment of Mozart or Verdi, whereas he does write sublime, exquisite music. Therefore, it works as an oratorio: hearing that music performed with total commitment and no distractions is a treat, with the side benefit of freeing one from a director’s seemingly inevitable need to “put a modern spin” on something that, to me at least, is a timeless story of abuse of power and strength in adversity.

Benjamin Hulett and Louise Alder © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Benjamin Hulett and Louise Alder
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Act 2 fares better on the dramatic side, and when it came to the climactic confrontation between Don Pizarro and Leonore, followed by the deus-ex-machina intervention of Don Fernando, Mena gave the orchestra their head, tempi accelerated and the excitement level swelled considerably. The arrival of the female contingent of the Orfeón Donostiarra choir more than doubled its size and gave it the extra impetus to make the final choruses into proper outbursts of joy. In the end, Mena, his musicians and cast were able to show Fidelio as the uplifting triumph of righteousness that it should be.