The Theater an der Wien has a storied history with Fidelio, having hosted the première of the work’s first and second versions in 1805 and 1806 respectively. In 2013 this is a house more oriented to the present than the past, and in interviews prior to this new production, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and director Herbert Föttinger warned that those accustomed to Beethoven’s only opera being performed by “war horse” or “armoured cruiser” orchestras would get “their ears cleaned out” by the work’s third version. With Harnoncourt this of course meant period instruments, with the objective being less an upholstered sound than something raw and as close to Beethoven’s time as possible. This goal was indeed achieved, although some probably felt brushed against the grain by the winds and particularly the natural horns, which cannot produce the evenness of modern instruments. When skilfully played these can produce much detail and colour, but the Concentus Musicus Wien did not always perform at the required level. That said, with so much despair on stage, these impurities sometimes sounded effective. A lot more exciting were the surprising dynamics and tempi that fitted the dramaturgy like a glove and therefore worked much better for me than is often the case in Harnoncourt’s Mozart. Equally surprising was the build-up of tension through long pauses where no-one in the audience stirred but held their breath in anticipation of what would come next.

In his opera directing debut, Theater in der Josefstadt director Herbert Föttinger and his dramaturg Ulrike Zemme impressed by emphasizing the intimate drama and love between Leonore/Fidelio and Florestan rather than the political aspect. In this production, Act I opens with Marzelline being molested by her betrothed Jaquino (Johannes Chum) whom she feels alienated from since she met Fidelio, though in an authoritarian system a man cannot allow such thoughts to go unpunished. Marzelline is often presented as a daddy’s girl, but here the direction presented her crush on Fidelio with much sensuality (lasciviously lounging on her office desk and wearing Fidelio’s leather jacket) and as a private rebellion in brutal times that often make women the first victims of oppression. At any rate, Anna Prohaska is the one to pull off such a show with both down-to-earth credibility and an ethereal tone that proved particularly pleasing in the quartet. The protagonists sing this wonderful musical highlight almost motionlessly and in reverie, with snow picturesquely falling into the room out of nowhere and setting off their private world of thoughts and emotions from the dialogues that precede it.

In the second part of the first act, the revolving stage gives sight onto the court of the prison that late set designer Rolf Langenfass would have been proud to see materialized: flanked by monumental square columns, the fence and gate of the prison are topped by a bridge with statuesquely standing guards above them – a poignant illustration of the literal meaning of oppression and an adequate setting for Rocco (Lars Woldt in an exemplary performance of a bureaucratic follower of the regime) and the unpredictable Don Pizarro (Martin Gantner on solid form, but sometimes lacking resonance on low notes). The dominant colour is grey with a hint of taupe, which light designer Emmerich Steigberger changes to a pearly pink for the prisoner’s release.

Florestan’s cell, by contrast, is pitch-black, and a glimpse of hope only comes when he lights a match. Michael Schade gives a touching portrait, belying expectations that his lyric tenor might not be capable of producing the drama and volume needed for this role. Juliane Banse however sounded strained, but her transformation from manly to loving in Leonore’s reunion with Florestan was impressive, the drink scene nothing short of shattering, and the final cell scene particularly memorable: in chains and handcuffs hanging from the ceiling, pulled up into a standing position by Pizarro, Florestan is hugged by his wife, conjuring up the picture of a team in a vertical tug-of-war.

The final chorus follows suit as the prison cell quickly disappears into the ground and the now plain white backdrop of the courtyard is blindingly lit for a split second, making for the most impressive darkness-to-light effect imaginable and Florestan’s relief palpable. This shock is followed by the Arnold Schoenberg Chor performing the finale in black concert attire and – aided by the evening’s soloists – almost outsinging the orchestra. As an afterthought to the happy ending of the private drama, it pointedly showed that changing society for the better will need time and work, as the catharsis of freeing prisoners (or indeed tearing a or rather the Wall down) doesn’t necessarily bring about freedom and a better life for everyone right away. Unfortunately, this effect was somewhat ridiculed by the appearance of the Minister (Garry Magee) costumed as Beethoven – that this production was actually truer to the composer’s ideals than many traditional presentations didn’t need pointing out.