Beethoven – Fidelio / Heppner, Mattila, Pape / Metropolitan Opera 2002 (2)

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Listening to this was a strange experience in some ways. Like (many? most?) other people who are into this kind of thing I went through a phase as a young person during which I listened to Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures over and over again. It was both kind of startling and really interesting to hear that same language or style or palette or whatever applied to opera. Given the story, I kept expecting the music to feel darker than it does – this may be the performance, or it may be my faulty expectations, but it was only at the introduction to the second act that the performance evoked the feeling of grim shadowy threatening space that I kept looking for. Sections of this reminded me, oddly enough, of Die Zauberflöte – serious, but not dark and threatening in quite the same way as, say, Don Giovanni is. But I am talking about Beethoven, not about Mozart, so never mind.

But as I said before, the tone of this production is hard to pin down. There are grim bits, like the opening of Act II with Florestan in the dungeon, and there are buffa bits, e.g. some of the family comedy in Act I. There are bits where I am not sure how to read the thing, for example how Marzelline feels about getting duped by Fidelio/Leonore. In this performance Marzelline (Jennifer Welch-Babidge) seems deeply distressed when the news is revealed to her, and she shies away from the hug that Leonore (Karita Mattila) tries to give her – but whatever happens with her, or her and Jacquino, it gets swallowed in the ‘hooray God! yay freedom!’ bit towards the end. This might be sad, or it might not matter, or it might be mildly amusing, but watching/listening to this performance didn’t give me any sense of which of these it might be. The ‘cross-dressing young person with whom others fall unfortunately in love’ is a very familiar stage widget in opera, but the way it’s used in this story is sort of – I don’t know. Unfocused?

Now that I think about it, this point about it being hard to read is true of the performance as a whole. I mean, it’s fairly easy to tell where our sympathies are supposed to lie. Florestan is in prison due to his devotion to “the truth” (I guess it’s out there after all?) and he and Leonore are very noble and good, and it all works out in the end and all that. Pizarro gets his comeuppance, Rocco probably gets some money out of the deal, and everything’s fine. This is not a production that deliberately undermines what the story claims to be saying – or at least, it doesn’t appear to. The apparatus of a figure on a horse and guards all mounted on a kind of scaffolding that rolls in during the final scene when wrongs are righted and Florestan is freed is kind of threatening and strange, but I don’t get the sense that this is intended to undercut all the celebratory stuff.

And certainly the look of the production in the most basic way doesn’t give you that ‘we’re being fucked with!’ feeling. The prison in which Act I takes place is unambiguously a prison, with cells along one side, and on the other an entryway with cheery little planters of garden flowers to mark Rocco and Marzelline’s home. Act II looks like a dungeon. And everything literally brightens for the final section. There is nothing sneaky about this at all. And in a way this makes perfect sense, because the opera itself is not terribly sneaky — indeed, it seems to ring all the expected changes as far as ‘things we all associate with Beethoven’ are concerned. The prisoners are thrilled to be released, even briefly, into the light and air of nature, courtesy of Leonore. Florestan has been fighting for truth, justice and the brotherhood of man. There is transcendent joy, e.g. Florestan and Leonore’s reunion. The whole thing makes a very straightforward and earnest sort of sense.

I think it’s this very quality of straightforwardness and earnestness that is giving me pause, because it’s related to what I said before about how nothing actually really happens, dramatically, in this story – but before that it’s probably worth being more specific about the performances.

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