Poor Beethoven. A brief history of recent productions of his only opera, Fidelio, originally set in an 18th-century prison, has to include the following: a spaceship hurtling towards doom (director Gary Hill, Opéra de Lyon/Edinburgh); a fluorescent, Kafka-esque maze (Calixto Bieito, ENO); a white room denoting Freud’s “salon of the unconscious” (Claus Guth, Salzburg); and a real horse (Tobias Kratzer, Royal Opera House). Glyndebourne’s last staging, by Deborah Warner, more modestly, relevantly and arguably most powerfully, featured an ironing board and washing line.
Now Glyndebourne Tour has a new production, directed by Frederic Wake-Walker and conducted by Ben Glassberg. It, too, has ideas, though none like the above. Originally planned for the main festival, it is being presented under the umbrella of Glyndebourne Tour though is not, confusingly, going on the road – all part of the backlog and compromise caused by the pandemic.
The opera is perceived (not by all of us) as an oddball: too symphonic, not dramatic, lopsided and, for non-German speaking audiences, hampered by awkward dialogue. It also celebrates married love, which isn’t to all tastes. Few directors are brave enough to trust this work of genius on its own terms. They fiddle, cut, add, reinvent. Glyndebourne’s new staging has the great benefit of being set, in Anna Jones’s designs, with lighting by Peter Mumford, in a prison. It looks striking, if relentlessly dark until the very end, when sheets of crinkly gold fabric symbolise the triumphant forces of light.
A braced panopticon, like an empty gas holder, dominates. The white-gowned prisoners’ chorus (excellently sung) stands on its different tiers as if suspended like angels. All this is promising, but there are problems. Everyone is seen, but does not see. To drive the point home, large, immersive video images play out on the bare fretwork structure. The visuals spin and lurch and confuse. It’s hard to follow this essentially straightforward story. Anyone new to it might have welcomed more clarity, less interference; with some rethinking, this could be achieved.
Not for the first time, the dialogue has been cut. The greatest intrusion is an invented character, Estella (Gertrude Thoma), who narrates a fictional scenario which I couldn’t entirely follow. When Estella talks over the music, our patience is tested. Beethoven is so inventive with the orchestration – on second night, well played by Glyndebourne Tour musicians, with plenty of beauty and vitality – that you don’t want to miss a note.
The singing was accomplished, and in the case of Dorothea Herbert, the German soprano playing Leonore, outstanding, passionate, soaring. Adam Smith as Florestan struggled with the merciless top notes, but gave an affecting performance. Gavan Ring’s unusually thoughtful Jaquino, Carrie-Ann Williams’s bright-voiced Marzelline and Callum Thorpe’s nuanced Rocco, too often made oafish, led an accomplished cast and chorus.
Glyndebourne Tour, between now and December, will travel to four venues with two operas (Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale) and Handel’s Messiah. You can also see, at base camp only, Charlie Chaplin’s comedy City Lights (1931) accompanied live by Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra.
Whereas Beethoven, in his singular way, gives you all you need, Chaplin’s silent films are actually incomplete without music to provide emphasis and shading. Kings Place screened his The Immigrant (1917) as part of its London piano festival last weekend. Gabriela Montero’s programme centred around the theme of exile, with music by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. Above all, it gave the Venezuelan pianist a platform to make her own, brilliant live accompaniment to the Chaplin, compressing every possible sound and style, witty and communicative, into a breathtaking improvisation.
She may have played to this slapstick comedy before (in which, as my meticulous American companion pointed out, the Statue of Liberty is on the wrong side, so these “arrivals” are actually leaving New York harbour), but each time is new. As she told us in advance, she had no idea where the music would go, or even which note she would start on. Not all musicians can improvise, and few can do it with this degree of control and invention. Montero included echoes of the Prokofiev (Sarcasms, leading straight into Piano Sonata No 2) and Rachmaninov (Piano Sonata No 2) she had played earlier in the recital. In those works she dazzled but was at times unyielding. In her own music she touched the heart – and the funny bone.
Star ratings (out of five)
Gabriela Montero ★★★★★
Fidelio is at Glyndebourne until 31 October