Although it is the final 1814 version of Beethoven’s sole opera that is being presented here, it has been somewhat altered in this co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, first seen in Munich in 2010. The substitution of the Leonore No. 3 Overture and the insertion of part of the slow movement of the composer’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 are not, however, the biggest issue with this production. For while Spanish director, Calixto Bieito seems to be driving for maximum dramatic and psychological impact, this is done at the expense of coherency and comprehension.
The design is visually striking. Rebecca Ringst’s set consists of a complex skeleton frame with flashing neon lights running along some of its bars. Water appears to gush down some of the panes and the entire set appears to have been designed to represent both a physical and psychological prison. Once this has been established however during the Overture, with the principals and prisoners clambering through the set, the theme isn’t really developed. As a result, though the cast wear broadly modern clothes, the production doesn’t feel as if it has been placed in a modern context, rather it now feels devoid of context in any form.
Given his smart attire and obsession with money, the gaoler Rocco could well be read as a modern day financier fearing his lifetime’s work has been futile and wondering what awaits him at the end, but even this does not tie in with much else. The fact that the prisoners also wear suits seems to suggest a dictatorship in which they have been snatched directly from the street.
While there are many innovative touches in this production, its conceptual weakness means it’s often hard to engage with them. The villain Don Pizarro, while singing of hacking Florestan’s flesh to pieces, indulges in self-mutilation, which creates a general sense of bloodiness but does not seem a plausible act for his character. Similarly, although one prisoner sings of coming troubles, this doesn’t really feel like sufficient reason for him to hang himself during the Prisoners’ Chorus.
When Don Fernando finally saves the situation he appears in a box in the auditorium dressed in eighteenth century regalia, implying, perhaps, that justice is only realised in theatre, fantasy or the unreachable past.
Though the staging is problematic, the singing and playing are of a very high standard. Several soloists are truly world class, none more so than Stuart Skelton as Florestan whose performance of ‘Gott! Welch Dunke hier’ (you won’t, of course, hear those words in David Pountney‘s English translation) reveals a combination of lightness, rigour and expansiveness in his tenor voice. As Leonore, Emma Bell produces a rounded, sumptuous and highly accurate sound, and also proves a strong psychological actor. James Cresswell is an assured Rocco, Sarah Tynan a delightful Marzelline, Adrian Dwyer a dependable Jaquino and Roland Wood an enigmatic Don Fernando. The most mixed principal performance comes from Philip Horst as Don Pizarro, but while there are times when he feels underpowered, there are others where he is menacingly overwhelming.
Conductor Edward Gardner achieves a keen blend of precision and passion, keeping a firm grip on tempi and producing the appropriate level of richness for each scene, while never preventing the music from breathing. And full credit to Bieito for one musical coup: the slow movement from Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor sees the four instrumentalists play from cages suspended above the set. It is an act that very much puts the music centre stage, and the rewards are considerable.
Bryan Register plays Florestan on 1 and 3 October.