When Pavlo Hunka, a big singer in every respect, took a tumble during the curtain call at the premiere of Opéra de Lyon’s Fidelio at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, he was instantly on his feet again. In a way this minor mishap, largely thanks to the bizarre costume he was obliged to wear, spoke reams about the daring yet also rather silly production by west coast American director Gary Hill.
Hunka is one of the most impressive bassbaritones either side of the Atlantic: Pizarro at Bregenz, he was quickly signed up by Barenboim and Zubin Mehta, figuring large also in Toronto, where he founded his mammoth Ukrainian Art Song Project, restoring Lieder long suppressed by Tsarist and Communist Russia.
The voice is mammoth too, but front-gauze curtaining for fanciful visual displays, valid though it might be, did nothing for him or several of the cast’s vocal impact; and to have most characters whirling around on Segway-style wheeled platforms and sink Pizarro, the one monster of the show, inside a kind of Queen of the Night-meets-Japanese Noh theatre attire, which made him look the smallest person onstage, is just plain dumb.
So Pizarro evanesces (the outcome we are of course all hoping for), part thanks to Italian Marco Filibeck’s superb lighting, from the start. Hill, eager to hint we are all subordinate to some dictating noetic universe (a very Enlightenment notion, to be fair). sets the show on a spaceship and laves the stage with white-on-black front and back-projections that look really beguiling, till they swamp everything.
The trouble continues: several others disappear emotionally too. Leonora (Israel and US-trained Swede Erika Sunnegårdh, to my ears terrific in her big soliloquy) shares a sort of low-grade creamy Star Wars costume with Rocco (the otherwise wonderful, crystal-clear Austrian Michael Eder) and Jaquino (the able Christian Baumgärtel): all look pretty daft, and although smoothly wheel-borne, their movements are repetitive and characterless.
The one spared this, having a silly costume of her own, is Marzelline (Moldovan Valentina Naforniţă), who shares black with Hunka’s Pizarro and Nikolai Schukoff’s (aptly anonymous) Florestan, and whose expressive singing is pure joy.
This is a dramatic work about hope, liberty, courage, brutal oppression, murder, a dark society questing after the light; a kind of Napoleonic Billy Budd. We certainly get extremes of dark and light – and those circling stellar front-projections yield to a miraculous floral blossoming for the Prisoners reentering a soon-to-be-sane world.
Some of the imagery Hill cooks up is relevant; but far from all. Too often it wantonly takes us away from what matters in Fidelio. Thank goodness the conductor is Kazushi Ono. Top rank in the opera pit, Ono waves a magic wand over the production. His lightness of touch eclipses the little space mannequins dancing all around him, and his shrewd hand shows in everything. His corresponding weight and dignity cannot save the singers, but my goodness, his Lyon players respond to him, just as La Monnaie’s did during his six year tenure at Brussels. If only the UK could see more of him; he has the golden touch.