This Fidelio proves a curious mix of buttoned-up playing and unbuttoned voices

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Fidelio - Vincent Pontet
Fidelio - Vincent Pontet

Among the many casualties of the pandemic were large parts of the celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary in 2020: the Royal Opera’s new production of Fidelio only just managed to open before being cancelled, and other Fidelios fell victim, until Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s delayed (and over-complex) staging appeared last autumn.

The enterprising French period-instrument orchestra Insula under conductor Laurence Equilbey has now mounted its own new production, which came to Brussels and the Barbican in a concert staging in advance of its full run of performances this month in the orchestra’s home, La Seine Musicale in Paris.

Fidelio is always a difficult piece to stage coherently, especially because its two acts seem to inhabit different worlds. The first is a recognisably 18th-century domestic drama set around a prison where Florestan (whom we do not see for entire first act) is imprisoned; Fidelio – in fact his disguised wife Leonore – has come to rescue him. The second act, growing from the depths of the prison in Florestan’s cell, erupts into a major disquisition on liberty, philosophy and eventually blazing triumph – the final sections of the opera are so tremendous that they usually manage to eradicate memories of earlier uncertainties of tone.

Equilbey and her director David Bobée have a simple answer to the two-act problem: to run them together into a single act, compressing some of the dialogue (credited to Beate Haeckl) and producing a continuous two-and-a-quarter-hour drama: a long and exhausting stretch, but well worth it for the continuous momentum this provides. Bobée also demonstrates a refreshing willingness to take the story at face value, and not impose extraneous theories, new characters, or other conceptual burdens on the narrative; he takes advantage of the relatively small orchestra to surround the players with action on the stage. The result is a straightforwardly vivid, compelling tale, presented in dour, grey costumes, whose dramaturgy falters only at odd points such as when Leonore is unable to interpose herself as Florestan is about to be killed (he waves a pistol unconvincingly).

Animated from the beginning by Sinéad Campbell-Wallace’s ardent but innocent Leonore, the change of mood in the opera is signalled by her transformation – her male disguise released in a tumbling shock of blonde hair as she reveals her identity. Hélène Carpentier’s light-voiced Marzelline is here a subordinate figure in the plot, while Patrick Grahl’s equally likeable Jacquino a firm support on the sidelines. Anas Séguin as Don Fernando arrives to rescue the situation in a white coat among the predominant grey.

The dominant forces in the drama are Sebastian Holecek’s overpowering Don Pizarro, the evil nobleman whom Florestan has tried to expose, his massive bass not perfectly focused but always gripping, and Christian Immler’s fine prison governor Rocco, a noble figure torn between duty and honour as he digs Florestan’s grave himself. As Florestan himself, from his first “Gott!” growing from nothing into an anguished cry at the start of the second part, it is clear that Stanislas de Barbeyrac will bring a special intensity to this role, and he delivers a passionately involved character especially compelling in his duet with Leonore.

However, all these vocal achievements are set against the background of Insula’s finely-honed period instruments in the orchestra, and it is not at all clear how the two groups relate. Insula’s strings are very straight (though the resonant violas are gorgeous beginning the great Act I quartet), and the wind are crisp and pungent (good to hear the bassoon line winding so prominently in the prisoners’ chorus). But the reduced vibrato and plangent sonorities of the orchestra sit oddly beside the unbuttoned voices of the soloists.

Equilbey herself is a restrained director, with no baton, and eyes often downward to the score, yet she draws eloquent performances and achieves the stirring climax in which Beethoven idealistically hymns the heroic aspirations of mankind to come together: a much-needed message for our time.

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