I’m really not sure what to make of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Fidelio for the Zürich Opera House. It’s not offensive and it doesn’t really get in the way of the story but it seems quite devoid of originality beyond mixing styles in a way one might describe as anachronistic if one could figure out when synchronistic would be. Rocco wears a sort of frock coat with, apparently, goatskin pants, Marzellina’s dress looks probably 20th century, bolt action magazine fed rifles are apparently muzzle loaded and metal cartridge cases filled by hand. Then to cap it off when Don Fernando shows up he looks like he’s stepped straight out of a Zeffirelli production of Der Rosenkavalier. So “nul points” for coherence. For once one rather appreciates that so much of the action takes place in the dark.
A while ago I had the misfortune to watch a thoroughly misconceived version of Purcell’s King Arthur. I have now had a chance to watch a version from the 2004 Salzburg Festival and it’s a lot better! This production by Jürgen Flimm takes Purcell and Dryden’s work and treats it respectfully but not solemnly. As originally intended, it’s given as a series of scenes spoken by actors interspersed by songs which are sung by five singers who change role as needed. The dialogue is in German but the singing is in English which seems a bit odd at first to an English speaker but one soon gets used to it. Flimm uses Dryden’s text for the most part but interpolates some scenes, notably where Merlin, disguised as an investment banker’s wife, enters via the auditorium and delivers a diatribe about Regietheater and how Salzburg has gone all to Hell. It’s just like being at a typical COC Opera 101. It’s staged in the appropriately baroque Felsenreitschule and the set mirrored the arcades of the building with a brightly painted wooden arcade structure set behind the stage. The orchestra is in a sunken pit in the middle of the stage so the action takes place all around them. There is clearly some heavy duty projection equipment behind the set because the production uses a wide range of, often spectacular, lighting effects.
Apparently the 2000 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Met was controversial. It’s very hard to see why. Although Jürgen Flimm has moved the setting to the mid 20th century and some unspecified country that looks vaguely Germanic the storyline is followed to the letter, bar a few changes to dialogue, and there is no risk at all of any dangerous ideas surfacing. It’s actually a very good example of what the Met does when it’s on form; assemble an all star cast, stick them in an inoffensive production and let the music do its thing. Here we have an enviable cast. Leonora/Fidelio is sung by Karita Matila who looks and sounds spectacular (although maybe the fact that she’s the only “male” among the principals with no facial hair should have triggered a little cluefulness). Vocally she is most assured and never seems under any strain at all. She acts well too. Ben Heppner, as Florestan, is also vocally solid and even quite lyrical in the big trio “Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten”. The acting though is best passed over in discrete silence. René Pape is fascinating as Rocco, the gaoler. I’m used to seeing Pape playing magisterial roles like Boris Gudonov or Sarastro. Here, the big voice is coupled with almost bumbling acting as he plays a morally weak character. It’s most interesting. A young Matthew Polenzani, one of my favourite tenors, sings Jacquino and he sings quite beautifully. Marzellini is Jennifer Welch-Babidge who I had never heard before but was sufficiently impressed to go look her up. It seems she’s busy with four kids in Utah and doesn’t spend much time at all in opera houses these days. It’s rather a pity. Falk Struckmann’s Don Pizarro is appropriately villainish and musically solid like everyone else. James Levine conducts and right from the overture launches us into a very intense, muscular reading of the score backed up by a very high standard orchestra. Musically and dramatically this is very satisfying albeit in a thoroughly conservative way.
The production was recorded for TV broadcast and it shows. The sets are already pretty claustrophobic but Brian Large’s video direction amplifies that. One gets the feeling that this is being directed for a 27 inch screen and it looks a bit lost on anything much larger. That said, the picture is more than decent and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is top notch (Dolby 5.1 and LPCM stereo are also offered). The English subtitles are a bit odd. For some reason “Gouverneur” is translated as “Colonel” and “König” as “President”. I didn’t check the French, German, Spanish or Chinese subs for similar oddness. Bonus material is minimal but the documentation is fairly decent. All in all it’s a typical Deutsche Grammophon release of its period.
This excerpt from Act 1 (Gut, Söhnchen, gut) is pretty typical.