Fidelio – Opera de Lyon – Edinburgh International Festival

This review should appear at Opera Britannia in due course.

Star Date: 12 August 2013

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

There are many areas of human endeavour where we must applaud glorious failure. Better, surely, that risks are taken than that we make do forever with the urbane and the familiar. The trouble is, when it comes to space travel, risks that don’t come off tend to result in crashes of spectacular intensity. Such is the case with Gary Hill’s interpretation of Fidelio, which for some reason never entirely explained, he chose to set in space.

This was a production with a lot of “concept” going on. It may be some time before we get to the singing but in a sense, that is true to the experience. One was never entirely convinced that the singing was the point of it.

Not only were we to be experiencing Fidelio on a spacecraft, but it was a spacecraft that was first known to humankind through its appearance in a Swedish science fiction poem that was published in the 1950s by Harry Martinson. Thus, we were on the good ship Aniara which somehow had found itself going off-course from its mission to colonise Mars. That it wasn’t the only thing that was going off-course was to become something of a theme of the evening.

It must have been such a wheeze deciding that the principle characters would mostly get around the spacecraft on Segway machines. There is certain dramatic ballet to be had by such machines gliding around. The trouble is, one controls a Segway by shifting one’s balance. It is a delicate operation. That one can persuade opera singers to perform on them is in itself worthy of note. However, directors who consider this course of action in future might be well to observe that if the singers are standing stock still with their hands by their sides in order to prevent themselves whizzing off into the wings, then it is a fair bet that their acting abilities are somewhat curtailed.

It was not always clear why some of the cast appeared on Segways at some points and walked on their legs at others. At one point Fidelio zoomed off-stage into the wings from which one could hear a decisive thud and came back on foot for the rest of the opera. Whether this was an accident or an expression of a new and previously undiscovered level of existential angst in the mind of the director was never clear.

Particular mention should be made of Don Pizzaro’s costume which made one wonder whether the cosmos had somehow conspired to mate the Mikado with a passing armadillo. It should come in handy if Opera de Lyon ever decide to stage the Savoy operas in a lunar safari park. Having seen this production, we must not rule out the possibility. The other costumes by Paulina Wallenberg-Olsson might have some second-hand value if Blake’s 7 is ever re-commissioned.

Then there was the video. Digital projection was not merely a feature of this production so much as its whole raison d’etre. Digital images were projected onto the rear of the stage throughout. Meanwhile, a gauze curtain was hung in front of the action during the whole opera and further digital images were projected onto this. Sometimes they related to the action. Sometimes they didn’t. What they did do was move constantly. Lines, polygons, imagined space-worlds all appeared before our eyes and jiggled and danced before us. It was as though someone was trying to demonstrate what was happening inside the head of someone with attention deficit disorder who was enduring a migraine whilst watching Star Trek. The poor cast, whizzing about on their Segways behind this curtain of dizziness could thus not be seen entirely clearly nor in all cases heard.

And so we come, at last, to thinking about the singing and in this respect it was an opera of two halves. The first half saw some spirited singing by Erika Sunnegårdh as Fidelio/Leonore whilst the second was somewhat energised by Nikolai Schukoff’s Florestan. His cry of injustice from within his prison cell was powerful and heartfelt and suddenly drew one’s attention away from all the digital action that was crowding one’s vision at the time. His voice had enough emotional intensity to focus the mind for a moment on what all this was supposed to be about – a political prisoner incarcerated because he had stood up to a tyrant.

Pavlo Hunka as Don Pizarro, the villain of the piece may well have had a good voice but struggled even more than the others to reach beyond the curtain that hung between him and the audience. Michael Eder produced a little more clarity as Rocco and provided a very solid underpinning to the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar which was a rare moment of tranquillity and a thing of touching beauty. Valentina Naforniţa’s Marzelline and Christian Baumgärtel’s  Jacquino completed that foursome but always sounded better in the tutti pieces than they did on their own.

There was dialogue for them all to negotiate too. New bits of German dialogue which had been written presumably to fit within the concept or which had perhaps been drawn from Harry Martinson’s poem. Either way, it was all rather forgettable, something which the cast seemed intent on demonstrating once or twice by apparently forgetting their lines.

That gauze screen in front of the action was a wretched decision and made it seem as though the action was all taking place within the context not of a theatre but of a conceptual art gallery.

Full marks to the chorus and the orchestra though. They produced some stunning sounds and each at one point or another acted as the booster rockets for a flagging evening. By some distance, the most exciting musical offering of the whole night came from a powerful chorus singing from the back of the stage and mostly invisible.

This was clearly a production which divided its audience. There was laud and raucous booing at the end but mixed in with cries of bravi from some. Perhaps the greatest failing was in billing it as an opera. Had we been encouraged to see it as an art event during which the participants would happen to try to sing Fidelio then we might have been on firmer ground. In billing it as an opera, the Edinburgh International Festival encouraged us to believe that it was in some way an interpretation of that work when in fact it was not.

It is good that there are opportunities for directors to do this kind of thing. It is important that someone reaches for the stars. However, this particular production showed what happens when the risks don’t come off. It was, from time to time, spectacular. The concept itself though was doomed from take off.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆