Beethoven’s only opera, first performed in 1805 at the Theater an der Wiem in Vienna, Fidelio has certainly stood the test of time. In this, Calixto Bieito’s second adaption and first for ENO, a thoroughly modern and psychological visionary spectacle has been adopted, casting aside Beethoven’s own conventional account. Rebecca Ringst’s set design is simple; to say it is a grand building of scaffolding really doesn’t do it justice yet this is essentially what has been created. What Ringst has actually dreamt up is a generous sized labyrinth, often lit up by spectacular lighting, making the aesthetics of this production all the more nightmarish and astounding.
Fidelio follows Leonore (Emma Bell) as she searches for her missing husband, Florestan (Stuart Skelton), a mission which takes her to the sadistic Pizzaro’s (Philip Horst) prison/fortress and leads to her donning a male disguise in order to infiltrate the prison and rescue him. Love triangles and violent confrontations ensue for Leonore – or Fidelio, her newly adopted alias.
The set shimmers like a glimmering beast under a cloak of moonlight with the aid of lighting designer Tim Mitchell, and as the opera begins with Jaquino pursuing the jailer’s daughter Marzelline (ENO regulars Adrian Dwyer and Sarah Tynan), the many platforms and tunnels within the labyrinth are brought to life using florescent lighting. It is regularly moved by the backstage crew in order to correlate with the story but as death becomes an almost certainty for Florestan in the opening of Act two, the set descends upon him creating isolated transparent rooms, emphasising even more a feeling of being ostracised. Genius.
The talent here, especially from leads Bell and Skelton, is what one would expect from an ENO production. Their searing vocals send shivers down the spine and create a heavy feeling of heartbreaking sadness. The chorus’s contribution is thunderous, and Edward Gardner’s orchestra, especially in some of the concluding scenes as a pair of violinists and cellist descends upon the stage in cages, are stunning. The wonderful thing about such magnificently put together productions such as this is that every now and again closing one’s eyes and listening peacefully is more than enough.
The general theme running through Bieito’s adaptation is incarceration and freedom, focusing more intently on the psychological prison of each character and taking a not-so-subtle jab at society’s conformist attitudes through Ingo Krugler’s costume designs. Every prisoner, bar the broken Florestan, wears a suit, identifying a significant lack of freedom in being so uniform. Even Philip Horst’s Don Pizzaro, who also wears said suit, inevitably is not a free man. Roland Wood’s Don Fernando is as elaborate as they come, a stark contrast to the contemporary feel of the piece in a costume that belongs perhaps to when Fidelio was first staged two hundred years ago. He is the one who really calls the shots.
An affecting, and visually and auditory beautiful piece from a very talented director.
Fidelio is playing at the Coliseum until 17 October. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera’s website. Photography copyright Tristram Kenton.