Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio was inspired by a true story of a political prisoner during the French Revolution, but the opera’s setting was moved to Spain. The opera of marital love, loyalty and justice has marked many historic moments, such as the reopening of Deutsch Oper Berlin in 1945 and the Wiener Staatsoper in 1955. It is an ultimate irony of fate that Beethoven’s 250th birthday fell in the year 2020, as the world struggles under the weight of a pandemic and its political, economic and social consequences. Beethoven’s timeless and universal drama of humanity’s struggle and triumph against injustice was a fitting subject for Opera North's semi-staged performance without an audience.

Opera North's performance of Fidelio in Leeds Town Hall
© Richard H Smith

The evening was shortened to about 1 hour and 45 minutes, with all the dialogues omitted and substituted by an ingenious narration by Don Fernando, recalling the “case” of Florestan. Members of a pared down orchestra sat at some distance from one another on stage, and the soloists performed in front of them, facing the empty hall. Choristers appeared from behind the pipe organ, and sang on steps behind the orchestra, creating a sense of voices enveloping the hall. Lighting was kept low, mostly dark with strips of thin blue lights to mark steps, with spotlights on soloists. The atmosphere was contemplative and solemn, with the music taking on religious gravitas. 

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth led a thoughtful overture with just the right mixture of transparent instrumental texture and a crisp tempo. His sense of timing for each musical set-piece was brilliant; the opening Marzelline–Jaquino duet was brisk to reflect their youth and impatience. Marzelline’s aria, on the other hand, was taken at a deliberate and wistful pace. Each soloist was given ample room to expound on their story, and yet the music never sagged. The Act 1 quartet, with its complex melodies and harmonies, was an early highlight, with each voice audible and expressing the character’s inner emotion. The prisoners’ chorus, with its gentle beginning swelling to an intense longing, was a hymn to soothe our pandemic-fatigued soul. Each chorister acted not just with voice but with facial expressions and gestures, making their singing even more poignant.

Brindley Sherratt (Rocco)
© Richard H Smith

Soloists were well chosen and rehearsed, everyone with clear German diction. Brindley Sherratt’s Rocco was a standout among the strong cast; it was a pleasure to hear his authoritative bass full of interesting colors. His presence provided a focus of vocal and stage action, as engaged in the drama as he was. Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn impressed as Marzelline with her bright and youthful lyric voice; her high notes were lovely and warm, her grasp of the role’s delight and naiveté was remarkable. Oliver Johnston was an uncharacteristically sympathetic and dynamic Jaquino, with a ringing voice. Robert Hayward made the most of his brief scenes to portray Don Pizarro as a more complex character than simply a heartless villain.

Rachel Nicholls (Leonore) and Toby Spence (Florestan)
© Richard H Smith

Rachel Nicholls as Leonore has a steely and yet full soprano, and her middle voice was especially attractive, with darkly molten legato. Her high notes were a bit strident at times, but that suits the high strung and desperate wife of a prisoner about to be executed. She blazed through Leonore’s killer aria “Abscheulicher” with some tentative phrases but with a fiery and thrilling declamation at the end. Her prisoner husband Florestan was sung by Toby Spence, a lovely lyric tenor although one would have wished for a bit more heft and sheen in the voice to carry the dramatic arc of his opening aria “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” As part of ensemble singing later in Act 2, Spence made a heartfelt and exciting contribution as Wigglesworth unleashed the orchestra to play the joy of liberation as a glorious symphony.

This performance was reviewed from the Opera North live video stream