Abstract Fidelio

Fidelio is an interesting piece.  The music is great and it has a powerful, very straightforward, plot.  There are no convoluted subplots here.  But there is a lot of spoken dialogue which slows things down.  Is it necessary?  Claus Guth doesn’t think so and in his 2015 Salzburg production he replaces the dialogue with ambient noise and also doubles up Leonora and Don Pizarro with silent actor “shadows”; the former using sign language in the manner of the narrator character in Guth’s Messiah.  It works remarkably well.  The ambient noise sections are quite disturbing and the “shadows” add some depth, especially the frantic signing in the final scene.  Perhaps worth noting that the “noise” contains a lot of very low bass and precise spatial location.  It may need a pretty good sound system to have the intended effect.


Guth’s dramatic take on the work is interesting too.  He strips it down to basics.  The set is a large white room with a raked stage and a black object set in the floor.  It can be moved to suggest transitions of place.  In Act 2 there’s also a sort of trench which, presumably, symbolizes Florestan’s potential grave.  After O namelose Freude! the curtain comes down and the stage is reset to a ballroom while the orchestra plays Leonora No.3.  Why not if you’ve got the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit?  Within this framework Act 1 is pretty conventional.  It’s Act 2 that disturbs and it’s Guth’s take on Florestan that does it.  He’s played as severely damaged.  He barely seems to know what’s happening and the noise of rejoicing in the final scene is unbearable to him.  It’s not even clear whether or not he’s alive at the end.  The frantic signing of Leonora shadow through this scene adds to the effect.  I found it highly effective, and affecting, and the audience in the house was most enthusiastic but, as so often, perhaps not one for strict conservatives.


Central to realising this concept is the Florestan of Jonas Kaufmann.  His ability to look utterly vulnerable, even mad, while singing with great beauty and power is remarkable.  It’s a very fine performance.  Adrianne Pieczonka’s Leonora is a really good foil.  It’s a straightforward dramatic, rather masculine, take perhaps more convincing as Fidelio than Leonora.  Her singing is powerfully noble and fully matches Kaufmann.  The voices blend beautifully in the big duet.  Hans-Peter König is genially attractive as Rocco.  There’s no great sense of moral conflict.  It’s more an ordinary, decent guy doing a dirty job. Thomas Konieczny’s Pizarro is a bit Dick Dastardly but that, I think, is Guth’s intent.  Olga Bezsmertna makes an attractive and sweet toned Marzelline.  Sebastian Holecek and Norbert Ernst are perfectly adequate  as Don Fernando and Jacquino.  The real star though may be the Vienna Philharmonic.  There is some very fine playing especially in the two overtures.  Franz Welser-Most on the podium certainly gets some exciting sounds out of them.


Video direction by Michael Beyer is a bit quirky.  Perhaps he’s not sure what to do with Guth’s simplicity.  In any event he feels the need to film from odd angles at times and, inevitably, there are more close ups than I might prefer.  Still, it’s perfectly possible to see what Guth is doing.  On Blu-ray, picture quality is excellent and the DTS-HD sound copes well with the considerable challenges of the added sound world.  There are no extras on the disk and the booklet is restricted to a track listing and a very brief synopsis.  This one really needs at least director’s notes and preferably rather more than that.  Subtitle options areEnglish, French, German, Chinese and Korean.


This may be the most interesting modern recording of Fidelio and is a must for Guth fans.  The 2008 Zürich recording may be a better bet for the Regie averse though.



6 thoughts on “Abstract Fidelio

  1. I recently rewatched this and am still not entirely sure what I think of this production. It has some amazing moments. At times I don’t want to deal with the dialogue and find the ending a little overdone, but perhaps the best thing about this production is showing me why the dialogue is useful and that taking the ending ironically isn’t necessarily satisfying, either.

    But I think the most remarkable thing about the production is Guth’s use of imagery from science fiction films to help tell the story. It isn’t effective if people don’t know the works referenced, but that’s the same with any allusions/references/imagery. I don’t know German (though I know Fidelio) so the words are opaque to me. I’m still in the dark regarding the “sign language,” if it is actually sign language, or if it is parody of some sort. But I’m leaning towards it being real, and communicating something (though perhaps it is just translation of the sung text. But my guess/hope would be that it is more than that).

    The start of the opera is in a the shadow of an obelisk, very much like the one from 2001. There are goons dressed like Agent Smith from the Matrix, and prisoners dressed as the people in THX 1138, both films about escaping a controlling dystopia. 2001 is about awakening, about new beginnings. But in this production, Florestan doesn’t really escape; he cannot handle the outside world. He pulls away from Leonore, and into the shadow (ending act 2). Act 3 opens and they’re in the same positions, but the giant obelisk in a white room is gone, replaced by a red-lit room with a chandelier. Florestan cannot stand the triumphant choruses and in the end, collapses.

    I’m not certain, but I’m guessing the chandelier is from Black Swan, Aronofsky’s psychological thriller about doppelgängers and a descent into madness. In that film the performance of the ballet is played out under a prominent Swarovski chandelier. The Fidelio chandelier isn’t an exact match, but the obelisk’s dimensions were off, too.

    I’m guessing there’s more that I didn’t pick up on in the costumes, etc. As you say, director’s notes could be fascinating.

  2. I have to say that I continue to be an enormous fan of Flimm’s met staging. It’s not an attractive set and is essentially traditional but the detail and concentration applied to characters most directors tend to forget about is absolutely remarkable. And I’m not at all sure how one cannot recommend Mattila’s Fidelio. She’s more or less definitive in the role IMO and the only singer I’ve ever heard who sang it without any kind of compromises (and I’ve heard legends in that role).

    • I agree it’s very good and as for KM, here’s what I said in my review “Leonora/Fidelio is sung by Karita Matila who looks and sounds spectacular”. That sounds positive to me! The only “buts” are that the DVD was recorded 16 years ago with Brian Large doing the video direction.

      • I’m not knowledgeable enough regarding video direction so it rarely informs my opinion. I agree though, Large is mediocre.

  3. As vital an opera as Fidelio is, I’ve never seen a completely successful (or, rather, exciting) staging of it. It was probably archaic when Beethoven wrote it, so, I imagine that an abstract setting could only benefit and Guth is a director whose vision can be trusted to do justice to a work without pedestaling it. I’ve ordered this and am anxious to tackle it. Still, I desperately hope to see a home video release of Bieito’s Fidelio, which received raves. The stills from it are mouthwatering.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s