Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rescue Remedy: 'Fidelio'


Did you know that there is a genre of opera called ‘rescue operas’ dating from the time of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that succeeded it? Neither did I.

According to the Royal Opera House program, Beethoven’s “Fidelio” is the only ‘rescue opera’ that has remained in the active repertoire. After the revolutionaries beheaded the king in 1792, they set about establishing a republic on the basis of ‘Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité (the philosopher Rousseau could be brought into the story here, but I will try my best not to get side-tracked). Things, however, went from bad to worse, and the Jacobin party split, with Robespierre unleashing the dreadful Reign of Terror, resulting in an early version of ‘disappeared ones’ - a phenomenon depressingly common in the 20th century, and indeed beyond. Many of the revolutionaries’ former moderate comrades were imprisoned, and spent quite some time writing letters and appeals from their dank cells, channelling both public idealism and private passion.

The ideal of Liberté was pretty big in those days: think Statute of Liberty, the classically robed female figurehead symbolising freedom. So the ‘rescue’ stories were not just about telling the tale, but also powerfully symbolic. 

Here's Wikipedia on The French Revolution, if you'd like the details.

The final scene, ROH production

In “Fidelio” the central rescuer figure is a female, Leonore, who dresses as a boy (named Fidelio – ‘fidelity’, get it?) in order to recue her beloved husband from a serious dungeon where he has been illegally imprisoned by his political enemy. There’s a side-story with an old gaoler and his daughter, but in the end Leonore is very brave and rescues her husband in the nick of time; a kindly authority figure frees all the prisoners and the bad guy disappears himself to an unspecified fate. I am being glib about it, but behind the story is some pretty powerful symbolism. Beethoven was a serious kind of guy. He admired Mozart’s music but found his choice of story lines (“Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni”) to be too frivolous. For his only opera, Beethoven chose much more edifying themes. (I say his only opera – “Fidelio” exists in some earlier versions which are called “Leonore”).  

Second Act, in the dungeon
So although “Fidelio” is based on an earlier French ‘rescue opera’ (by Bouilly, who claimed the story was a true story from the Reign of Terror), Beethoven set it in a vague Spanish castle, and the bad guy’s name is Pizarro. The current production, on hire from The Met in New York, time-shifts the action to the 20th century and one can’t help but think of the Spanish Civil War, though I haven’t found anything in the program to confirm this impression.  It would be appropriate.

The music, you ask? I was mightily impressed by the overture (very Beethoven-ish), less impressed by the First Act though it had some nice moments (especially one lovely quartet); and mightily impressed all over again by the Second Act. It had it all: a wonderful tenor appears, there’s intrigue, love, action, and it ends with a massive chorus. Excellent. When the tenor (Endrik Wottrich) first opened his mouth, it was to sing an enormous heartfelt cry from the depths of his dungeon: “Oh God! It is so dark here!” After my first Northern Winter, I couldn’t help but empathise.

Fidelio/Leonore was sung by the very wonderful Nina Stemme, who was very good indeed. The nasty Pizarro was performed by the German-born but Australian trained John Wegner. I have heard him sing several times at the Sydney Opera House, including a good Scarpia (the bad guy in ‘Tosca’). Wegner does bad guys very threateningly. I think he’s found a niche. This was his debut at the Royal Opera, and I gave him a hearty ‘bravo!’ at the curtain call, in Antipodean solidarity and encouragement. I wonder if he heard. I was in Row E, which is quite close, so he might have. I must also mention the bass, Kurt Rydl, who sang the part of Rocco the old gaoler. It is a substantial part, and his voice was very beautiful. Basses can sometimes not be, but this guy was excellent.

Ludwig von Beethoven
The big choruses at the end are exceptional. The story ends on a triumphant and happy note. The great mass of freed prisoners sings ‘Heil se idem Tag! Heil sei der Stunde!’ (‘Hail the day! Hail the Hour!’). Leonore then leads them into ‘O Gott! Welch’ ein Augenblick!’ (‘Oh God, what a moment!’) I must say I agree that we should be thinking transcendence here, something that goes way beyond the story line in many ways. The program says “It is a moment that celebrates the power of the moment”, an interesting thought. I’m told that Wagner, although critical of “Fidelio”, was in the end thoroughly inspired by it.

So that was my night at the opera. Not only music, and history, but a little philosophy too. You can’t ask much more than that for your money.

It was opening night, so the reviews will be out tomorrow. Here's the ROH site for more information.

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