Fidelio was not an easy opera for Beethoven to compose, it is not an easy piece to sing, play nor conduct, and it is certainly not an easy work to direct successfully. After an hiatus of over 70 years from the Volksoper, it has been newly reinvented and enjoyed a première last night which will meet with mixed reviews, but was very warmly received.

Marcy Stonikas (Leonore) and Roy Cornelius Smith (Florestan) © Barbara Palffy | Volksoper
Marcy Stonikas (Leonore) and Roy Cornelius Smith (Florestan)
© Barbara Palffy | Volksoper

Musically, it was overwhelmingly successful. Though leaving the “Leonore” Overture out was a crying shame, the generally very high level across the board of singing and playing made up for it. Rebecca Nelsen stole the opening scene, resplendent and charming as the willful Marzelline, daughter of Rocco the jailer, played by the perennially wonderful bass, Stefan Cerny, who cannot seem to take a step wrong. Sebastian Holecek was the perfect villain, embodying the deplorable Don Pizarro with vocal strength and dramatic presence. Tenor Roy Cornelius Smith, with his raw sound, was believable in his portrayal of the desperate, weakened Florestan. Marcy Stonikas brought down the house in this debut with her vocal depth, warmth and range in the difficult title role, and both Thomas Paul (Jaquino) and Günter Haumer (Don Fernando) brought noteworthy engagement and interest to roles which are otherwise easy to overlook in lesser hands. Moreover, the orchestra was led ably to take risks under the baton of Julia Jones. With the exception of some serious splitting in the horns during Leonore’s “Abscheulicher!” the orchestra should be applauded for a commendable performance.

The production (Markus Bothe), stage design (Robert Schweer) and costume (Heide Kastler) were thoroughly booed in their curtain calls, a response which lacks respect but was somewhat well-founded. I’m all for a good, modernized production of an opera, but do desire some semblance of consistency within a constructed world, or at least informed inconsistency with interest and/or meaning. This production was all over the place. It opened on what looked like a high school set design. A backdrop of blue skies and white clouds framed action within a white picket fence. The curtain opens on a bottle-bleached Marzelline, in a Stepford pin-up red and white striped dress surrounded by an ironing board, laundry baskets and plastic grass. A mulletted, wife-beater-wearing Jaquino persues her aggressively, violently forcing her into a wedding dress. Rocco, clad in a velour robe, gold chains and brilliantined hair, interacts with them both, and with Fidelio, who is schlepping around a cardboard box of chains. The prisoners appear out of a trap door in the plastic grass, and this trailer-trash, school-play theme seems invaded by Morlocks from an H.G. Wells novel. The prisoners are uniformly bald, pale and dressed in burlap.

Rebecca Nelsen (Marzelline) and Thomas Paul (Jaquino) © Barbara Palffy | Volksoper
Rebecca Nelsen (Marzelline) and Thomas Paul (Jaquino)
© Barbara Palffy | Volksoper

The scenes in the dungeon utilize all the technical possibilities of the house with a moveable metal structure ascending slowly to expose prisoners in irons and finally Florestan, isolated in a cage-like structure in their bowels. Rocco and Fidelio walk amongst them and talk about moving heavy stones and digging while doing nothing besides singing and shining flashlights. When Pizzaro finds out Leonore’s identity he threatens her angrily with a dagger, but it turns out she and Rocco are both packing heat - apparently Pizzaro’s weapon store is located in a different century than the one in which Rocco and Leonore bought their guns. The action is thereupon carried up atop to a very modern, brightly lit set, all in white. The choir is clad in drab grey suits, and an incongruous wooden guillotine makes an appearance, eventually claiming the head of Pizarro.

Despite the fact that the direction was every bit as disjointed as I’ve described, the idea of trying to make each arena of action something completely individual, and moreover not committing to a particular time is an interesting concept. It didn’t always work in its realization here, likely because such specific points in time are indicated and then contradicted, but nonetheless it is evocative of thought and worthy of respect. I also enjoyed having Leonore’s aria sung as if from backstage, the set having been turned to reveal the frame. This effectively brought to the fore what a personal moment of introspection and honesty this aria is, amidst the rest of the action, cross-dressing and intrigue. On the other hand, I am not certain it was necessary to have her undressing and then redressing during the most difficult bits of the aria. Maybe we could sometimes just let our singers sing?

Finally, I was intrigued by the character development given to Jaquino, traditionally the sad sack of the opera who misses out on Marzelline and then mopes around, licking his wounds. In this production, he dons the coat of the ousted Pizarro in the closing scene, clearly indicating that just as one evil head has been (literally) cut off, another is growing in its place even as the happy ending plays itself out. 

***11