Melbourne Opera adds to the celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday with a splendidly sung revival of their 2013 staging of Fidelio.
All too rarely presented in Melbourne, Beethoven’s only opera is almost two works in one, beginning as an operetta-like love story before morphing nobly into a political drama coloured with stirring humanity. Fidelio is the name taken by devoted wife Leonore when she disguises herself as a man in an attempt to bring salvation to her imprisoned husband, Florestan.
Director Hugh Halliday updates the time period to a general sense of present day, with the story set in a gritty prison that could be placed in any number of treacherous political climates in war torn countries around the world. While the updated setting does not contribute any particular value to the storytelling, the poignancy and peril of the characters is given serious weight, complementing the stirring music to strong effect.
Fidelio begins with a number of events in the story already underway, not the least of which being Leonore in place in her disguise and with warden Rocco’s daughter Marzelline in love with her. For audience members unfamiliar with the work, pre-reading of the synopsis will enhance enjoyment of the performance. Sung in crisp German with clear English surtitles, the opera is easy to follow once it is underway.
Maestro Anthony Negus helms a disciplined, subtly expressive performance from the Melbourne Opera Orchestra, his intricate knowledge of the music bringing out myriad fine details. The overture known as “Leonore No. 3” is played in the pause in act two, and although this tends to interrupt the flow of the act, the dramatic intensity of the music makes for excellent listening.
Andrew Bellchambers’ solidly constructed set design brings a clear sense of realism to the prison office and prison yard. The natural feel aids the vision of the characters as real humans rather than heightened characters. Travis Macfarlane recreates Scott Allan’s lighting design, with particular atmospheric success coming in the dim dark blues of the underground prison chamber housing political prisoner Florestan.
Overseen by head of wardrobe Jillian Wilson, costuming achieves mixed results. The embattled prisoners, released for a brief moment of spring sunshine, look very suitably grizzled and unwashed. Military uniforms are somewhat undermined by the use of simple black t-shirts over camouflage fatigue pants. Even more curiously casual is the attire worn by warden Rocco and his assistant Jaquino.
The structure of act one allows the action to build in an entertaining and involving manner, aided by uniformly strong performances.
Young tenor Louis Hurley capably brings out the frustration of Jaquino’s thwarted love Marzelline. Rebecca Rashleigh gives a truly delightful performance as Marzelline, a role that allows her delectable ringing soprano to be heard at its sweetest.
Experienced bass Adrian Tamburini brings emotional maturity and a seemingly effortless sumptuous vocal tone to Rocco, working capably to keep the twists of the story well grounded.
Hidden under a rather unflattering costume and cap, guest soprano Kirstin Sharpin struggles to make the requisite impact in the key role of Leonore/Fidelio. Much of Sharpin’s vocal work exhibits a luscious richness, and her voice carries beautifully in ensemble singing.
Act one receives a hearty boost with the arrival of dastardly villain Pizarro, brought vividly to life by renowned baritone Warwick Fyfe. Bringing verve and voluminous vocals to the stage, Fyfe gives a highly memorable performance.
Act one builds again with the arrival of the men’s chorus, reliably prepared to an exacting standard by chorus master Raymond Lawrence. The wondrous harmonies of the “Prisoners’ Chorus” (“O welche Lust”) are heard at their best. Soaring choral work of the full company, including women’s chorus, brings the evening to a suitably inspiring conclusion.
Act two finally brings the first appearance of Florestan, with tenor Bradley Daley ensuring the wait was well worthwhile. Daley’s ringing head voice may be a little light on subtlety, but it creates a thrilling sound. Daley throws himself into the physicalisation of the tortured prisoner, enhancing the joyful impact of the Happy Ending.
Fidelio is a worthy showcase for the strengths of Melbourne Opera. The all too brief season deserves the full support of local opera lovers who are so well served by the unique and vital company.
Photos: Robin Halls