Beethoven wrote no fewer than four overtures to Fidelio, so determined was he to get it right. So when a director has so little faith in Beethoven’s judgment that he accompanies the overture with a protracted onstage mime sequence, it’s a worrying sign. Sadly, in Giuseppe Frigeni’s intensely frustrating new Welsh National Opera production, those worries proved justified.
Frigeni is credited as “director, designer and lighting designer”. Both his set designs and his lighting were powerful and arresting. The problem lay with his direction.
He’s cut almost all of the opera’s spoken text, leaving holes in both characterisation and plot. The production might still have worked, had Frigeni made the characters enact a convincing human drama. But Leonore and Florestan sang of their joy without smiles or eye contact.
A first-rate cast strained against the production: Lisa Milne delivered a truly heroic Abscheulicher!, and Elizabeth Donovan was a warm-toned Marzelline. James Creswell’s Rocco seemed to have had all the character drained out of him, while Phillip Joll’s brooding presence as Pizarro could have come from a different (and better) production. Conductor Lothar Koenigs and the WNO orchestra were magnificent – taut, powerful, and pulsing with emotion. And of course, in the director-proof final scenes, Beethoven’s exalted score swept all before it. Just enough to take the edge off the disappointment at such a wasted opportunity.