Hilary Reid Evans

Fidelio, Garsington, 15th June 2014

Beethoven said that writing Fidelio was akin to surviving a shipwreck. With its chequered history and notorious production issues, today's equivalent might be to refer to Fidelio as something of a train crash of an opera. Some of the difficulty lies in the mixture of genres, a tricky jump from farce to opera seria. The singspiel-type transitions from sung to spoken dialogue, the patchy plotting as well as the opera's grand themes (liberty, freedom from tyranny, personal sacrifice) do not resonate with today's middle-class audiences as they did with those of the early 19th Century.

On the whole, Garsington's revival of its 2009 production copes remarkably well with such a flawed masterpiece. Gary McCann's modernist industrial set provides a flexible backdrop whilst under the baton of artistic director Douglas Boyd Garsington's orchestra produced what was on the whole a wonderfully accomplished rendition, albeit with some slightly awkward pauses and a lack of force in the louder sections, the latter possibly due to the building's acoustics.

Of the leads Rebecca von Lipinski shone as Leonore, producing a wonderful clarity of tone in the ensemble pieces, yet seeming strangely hesitant in her Act I solo aria. Jennifer France (Marzelline) showed a delightful comedic talent as the gaoler's minx-like daughter while Stephen Richardson's Rocco was conflicted, humane and affectionate, providing us with one of the most commanding performances of the evening. Darren Jeffrey sang well, yet Don Pizarro seemed a hollow pantomime villain, the confrontation with the gun-toting Leonore an anticlimax rather than a moment of high drama.

The reunion between Leonore and her husband Floristan too seemed anti-climactic despite some lovely vocal lines in a duet filled with notoriously difficult echoing arpeggios. Peter Wedd as Florestan provoked pity both as prisoner and singer. What cruelty to have him shackled inside a concrete pipe and to produce most of his aria lying on his back! Despite a great deal of vibrato Wedd produced what was for me the finest performance of the evening, his voice crackling with emotion and resonating throughout the amphitheatre. Joshua Bloom's resonant bass rang out magnificently from the set's tower during the final scenes, providing as Don Fernando a musical context for the whole work.

Throughout, Garsington's chorus performed magnificently. The spectacle of those zombie-costumed prisoners, released in celebration of the King's birthday to enjoy the air, was one of the great sights and sounds of the evening and it was a joy to see the Garsington tradition continued of integrating the now mature Wormsley gardens in to the production. It was a cruel irony that the effect of the final prisoner release scene, in which a phalanx of somewhat incongruously dressed Greek goddesses present blankets to the emerging men, should have been to produce a great deal of envy amongst the audience since, despite the presence of under-seat heating, the Garsington auditorium remains remarkably draughty. John Cox's production presented us with a comprehensible, if unemotional, version of Beethoven's only opera, one which is far from the "ostentatious, chaotic and disturbing" critical view of the 1805 original.

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