I have a vague memory of seeing Beethoven’s Fidelio on stage at some point. It may have been a concert or a semi-staged performance – I associate it for some reason with Symphony Hall in Boston, so if I am actually remembering this rather than somehow imagining it, the performance took place somewhere between 1998 and 2002. I remember Rocco’s song about money. However, it may be that I am imagining this, or that I had a dream that I went to see Fidelio at Symphony Hall – but why I would dream that I am sure I do not know. (If I’m going to dream concerts, you’d figure it’d be something more exciting, like some sort of festival that involved recitals by Röschmann and Kasarova on successive evenings, followed by a great big fully staged performance of Don Carlos with the cast from that Bavarian State Opera performance broadcast a few months ago. And maybe the day after, Joyce DiDonato could sing some Rossini, or maybe some Handel . . .)
But where was I? Right. Fidelio.
I emerged from this performance a little puzzled. I mean, this is an opera, but it’s kind of difficult to categorize, as operas go. There are sections of spoken dialogue, which I guess points to Singspiel. The whole thing is kind of dark, in that it’s about murder and political imprisonment, but it has these buffa moments, like the abovementioned song about money, that are not particualrly dark at all. The whole thing feels sort of like an unusually long Beethoven symphony in which an opera got embedded somehow. Or most of an opera. Or, rather, elements of an opera. I am not convinced that anything actually happens in Fidelio.
I mean, obviously things happen. Leonore has disguised herself as a young man, and manages to get into the prison where her husband Florestan is being kept, and Pizarro nearly murders Florestan but for Leonore’s timely reveal that she is Leonora and not Fidelio, which stops Pizarro dead enough in his tracks that whatshisname Fernando has time to show up and solve everyone’s problems, after which (in this version at least) Leonore is carried around on everyone’s shoulders and we all cheer and wave our hats except – what has Leonore actually done? I was so convinced that I had missed something that I went back and watched the end of the prison scene again. In this staging at least, Pizarro (what a name!) is just about to knife Florestan when Leonore interposes herself between husband and dagger and announces who she really is, and Pizarro is surprised and we get a lovely ensemble, which is interrupted by horns announcing Fernando’s arrival, and then once we’ve settled what that’s all about we go back to the ensemble, and then Jacquino pokes his head in and says “get up here!” and Rocco and Pizarro do – Leonore has a gun on Pizarro all the while but I’m not sure why, given that he’s clearly leaving and she doesn’t intend to kill him – and then Florestan and Leonore get to reunite.
So as I said, it’s unclear what Leonore actually accomplishes, other than being charmingly butch enough to turn the head of Rocco’s daughter Marzelline. Which is nothing to sneer at, don’t get me wrong – but as far as heroism goes, it is at best Stage One.
Another way to put this, I think, is that it doesn’t feel as if anyone ever has to decide anything in this story. No one has a crisis, or really has to change his or her mind about anything. Leonore and Florestan don’t even have to take his freedom in the sense of forcing an escape. Instead, it’s given to them. For all the racket about liberty and justice, it feels bizarrely authoritarian.
So next up: the music, and a perhaps characteristically literal-minded staging by the Met.
(Next part here.)