Review: Fidelio ****

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BEETHOVEN was not only a composer of quality, he was also prolific. From the age of 12 he created symphonies, songs, concertos and ballets, so it’s curious to think that he only ever crafted one opera.

Given that, you might expect Fidelio to be something of a blip in his career, a toe-dipping exercise which put the grandmaster off submerging himself in the field. Not a bit of it. This is a glorious piece, albeit one which isn’t considered one of opera’s greatest hits.

The story is juicy: prisoner Florestan is held in the dungeon of a prison run by his arch enemy Don Pizarro, who wants him dead. Desperately trying to get him out is Florestan’s wife, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, to gain access to her husband’s cell. Hindering and sometimes helping is Rocco, the prison guard, and his daughter, Marzelline, who actually falls in love with the central hero/heroine.

And the score is just as delicious too, with its sweeping orchestration it’s clearly the work of a giant and one who really should have made greater forays into opera.

Director Tim Albery’s staging initially appears a little timid. The opening scenes see us introduced to a series of brightly-coloured chambers containing different rooms in the prison, but as the action progresses comes the unveiling of wonderful alpine backdrops and the dark, sinister tomb where Florestan languishes.

The beauty of Fidelio is the switch from gentile solos to grand sections where the chorus really blossom, the scene where the prisoners are given a brief taste of the outside world being an obvious example.

Outstanding among the soloists is Emma Bell, whose voice is a blissful blend of angelic and powerful. She is quite simply in a different league. Andrew Foster Williams is great as Don Pizzaro, a part which typifies the need for Fidelio’s cast to be able to act as much as sing. He pulls it off perfectly, and attracts well-deserved boos as a result.

The opera is a little long and protracted, particularly given its relatively simple plot, but it is also captivating on so many levels.

Small elements of the staging enchant – like the use of sliding black screens to create ever-changing apertures of stage action – to the greater consideration of ethics and human incarceration.

After two centuries Beethoven is still as relevant, and still leaves us wanting more.

Rod McPhee

Tomorrow and May 13, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate, Leeds, 7.30pm, £10 to £59. Tel: 0844 8482706. www.leedsgrandtheatre.co.uk

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