Never mind if the overture to Fidelio happens to be Beethoven’s 1st, 2nd or 3rd version – or, as in this case, the final one – the moment conductor Douglas Boyd eased his orchestra into the score the unmistakeable sound of arguably the greatest composer that ever lived made its presence felt, a tremendous way to open the 25th anniversary season of Garsington Opera.
Adding even more magic to the evening was seeing a revival of the acclaimed 2009 production, which, having taken place at the company’s first home in Oxfordshire, also happened to be the first time Boyd had ever conducted for Garsington Opera. Now he is also artistic director and, with all the advantages of a new state-of-the-art opera pavilion located on the spectacular Getty-owned Wormsley Estate, director John Cox’s production oozes integrity and energy.
Reuniting most of the original cast members, it was also apparent how much conductor and director both appreciate the marriage between the text and the score. “The greatest music is able to express every emotion that we can experience as human beings,” enthused Boyd. “Beethoven expresses joy and graciousness and love, but also terror and grief, and everything in between. Fidelio is the most incredible example of this extraordinary palette of emotions.”
As Beethoven’s only opera, written when he was particularly isolated due to his increasing deafness, the dungeon in which the nobleman Florestan is placed has understandably been interpreted as a symbol of the composer’s own frustrations and his yearning for conjugal love can certainly be seen in the character of Leonore, who stops at nothing to save her husband’s life by disguising herself as a man, ‘Fidelio’, in order to gain access to the prison – a role which Rebecca von Lipinski reprises with the advantage of maturity.
Having also been a resident of Oper Stuttgart, Germany, she impresses with her crystal clear pronunciations, her familiarity of the language and the role itself. Complications arise when the gaoler’s daughter, Marzelline (Jennifer France), falls in love with Leonore, believing her to be the handsome young man she is posing as. Marzelline’s father Rocco, played by the tremendous bass-baritone Stephen Richardson, can’t wait for Fidelio to set a date for the wedding, having meanwhile been ordered to kill Leonore’s husband Florestan (Peter Wedd) by prison governor Don Pizarro (Darren Jeffery) – a brilliant, almost panto-esque baddie.
Whilst Richardson and Jeffery were both convincing and Joshua Bloom exquisite as Don Fernando, the King’s minister, it was particularly enthralling to watch the suitably masculine Lipinkski convey her horror as an aside to the audience, on hearing the suggested marriage to Marzelline. A highlight of the evening was hearing both sopranos perform in unison; France’s Marzelline perfectly harmonious to Lipinkski’s Fidelio. Without doubt, the women stole the show for the first half.
The prison setting of Fidelio was a particularly brave and unappealing backdrop for a romantic opera in the early 19th century and one which continues to make it stand out from the saccharine-sweet comedies of Beethoven’s rivals. Gary McCann’s imposing design, with a spiral staircase as the focal point, cleverly plays up to the power and force of the score and the tension of the plot.
Act II opens with Florestan in shackles, who has been wrongly imprisoned for speaking the truth, and a very moving rendition of Gott, welch dunkel hier! by tenor Wedd. It’s so sorrowful and poignant as to allow the audience into the composer’s own mind for a moment. However predictable the ending might be (what opera isn’t?) you get a real sense of how seriously Beethoven intended this work to be, with loyalty, freedom and justice at its core.
Thanks to Garsington Opera’s world class performers and directors, Fidelio doesn’t come much better than this, and nor does the setting of the Wormsley Estate on a balmy summer’s evening where guests (a sea of black tie gents and elegant ladies) are given the chance to enjoy dinner in one of the marquees or picnic on the lawn overlooking the lake during the extended interval.
Fidelio at Garsington Opera on select days until 13th July 2014. For more information and tickets visit the website.