Turning his long-awaited aspiration into reality, musical director of Bristol Opera Arne Kovac conducted his favourite opera in concert in order to celebrate his 40th birthday. Beethoven’s masterpiece Fidelio is his only venture into opera and tells a story of love, happy marriage and freedom, complete with happy ending.

This was a concert performance of the opera in which the orchestra was centre stage. The soloists were placed at the front and the chorus along the back, behind the orchestra. The narrator, played by Graham Billing, was also at the front of the stage, sat at a desk. He rewrote and performed his own English version of narrative, helping to tell the plot sung by the soloists in German. Hopping between two languages was a little confusing, but having the narration in English made following the story easier with the lack of interaction between the soloists. Billing’s witty additions to the text gave his role a defined personality.

The costumes for the evening were subtle but slowly unveiled themselves with the plot; as there was no set, this added to telling the story. My favourite had to be Brendan Casey’s costume as Pizarro. He stood out in a full-length leather coat and trilby hat, clearly the baddie. It was a little incongruous with the other more subtle outfits, but Casey made use of his villainous costume by sweeping the coat round for swift exits, and it brought his character to life.

There were several memorable singing performances of the evening. Guy Withers (Jaquino, the servant) and Dajana Kovac (Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter) sang the opening duet, unveiling the subplot of Jaquino’s love for Marzelline. The duet was convincing, and both vocalists had great tone and diction. Ethel-Jane Cormack playing Leonore had wonderful facial expressions, looking alert and interacting with the other singers on stage with eye contact and body language.

Bristol Opera had a large number of singers present, both amateur and professional. The entire female chorus waited patiently, hiding either side of the stage in the balconies and blending in to the audience until the last few minutes of the entire opera, forming a unified and powerful sound. It has to be said, the last scene was my favourite. Not only was the overall sound big and the orchestra on form, but also one of the soloists – Roderick Hunt playing Don Fernando – had a deep resonant bass voice, which projected over the orchestra effortlessly, and he had energy in his performance which made him engaging to watch. To me, that last scene is what Beethoven is all about, especially as it is in similar vain to his Ninth Symphony – loud, proud and full-force stage presence.

There were many good separate aspects to the music, including a gutsy string section in the orchestra, though the pace could have been faster for most of the opera. Throughout, tempo was a little off, which was made more difficult because the vocalists were forward of the conductor. There was high spirit, though, and the signers made the best of their position on the stage. Where technical details were missed in music and staging, the evening was nonetheless entertaining and the climactic ending left the evening on a high note.