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Fidelio, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, review: the staging's silly, but Lise Davidsen justifies the price of any ticket  

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Lise Davidsen and Jonas Kaufmann in the Royal Opera's Fidelio
Lise Davidsen and Jonas Kaufmann in the Royal Opera's Fidelio Credit: Bill Cooper

After ducking out of the dress rehearsal earlier this week, a rumour circulated Covent Garden that Jonas Kaufmann was sickening and might cancel the first performance of this new production of Fidelio. In the event, the superstar tenor came on, “craving our indulgence”, and his singing as Florestan just about met expectations. But the bigger sensation was the astonishing young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in the title role: she simply blew the audience away.

2020欧洲杯足球即时比分That the performance otherwise was a disappointment comes as no surprise to me. Fidelio may be a transcendently moving work by the greatest of composers, but it’s not easy to pull off on stage (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a completely satisfying interpretation). Beethoven had a magnificent sense of drama but little grasp of effective theatre, and there’s something broken-backed about an opera that starts as a quasi-realistic domestic comedy before passing through political melodrama into a symbolic journey from darkness to light and ending up in the visionary realms of the finale to the 9th Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. 

These inherent dramaturgical problems make Fidelio catnip to the new school of Middle European opera directors, among whom Tobias Kratzer currently ranks high. His version of the libretto liberally changes the actions of the characters and adds new dialogue alongside extracts from plays on revolutionary themes by Büchner and Grillparzer. This is done in the name of “critical interrogation of the text”, but I found almost all of what he has contributed merely banal and self-regarding.

The first act starts off promisingly enough, with a realistic depiction of a grim prison courtyard and people in clothes of the late-18th century. A period production, hurrah! But an unintentionally ludicrous dumb show during the overture in which the wives of the incarcerated are handed their husbands’ decapitated heads sounded the alarm. Soon Jaquino is being beaten up by louts, Marzelline is attempting to unbutton Fidelio’s flies and uncover his/her secret, and Leonore’s pistol is confiscated after she is frisked before entering the dungeon. And that’s just the first act.

2020欧洲杯足球即时比分What follows is much worse. Florestan is chained to a rock, surrounded by a gawping audience in modern dress, representing us the public as voyeurs guiltily complicit in his suffering. Their fatuous expressions of disgust, dismay and indifference are projected on to a screen behind the singers, constituting nothing but a distraction. It isn’t Leonore who brings Pizarro to justice but Marzelline, whose shoots him and sets off a riot. I could go on, but am reluctant to pay Kratzer’s sophomoric fancies and “insights” more attention. His is not serious interpretation, it’s plain showing off.

Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan in the Royal Opera's Fidelio Credit: Bill Cooper

Antonio Pappano conducts a vigorous and exciting if sometimes superficial reading of the score, and the chorus sounds thrilling in the final scene, but the Royal Opera’s casting department has made some bad calls in assigning the supporting roles. Simon Neal’s underpowered Pizarro lacks jackboot swagger and Georg Zeppenfeld’s Rocco is also insipid. Amanda Forsythe and Robin Tritschler would make an attractive Marzelline and Jaquino in a smaller house: in Covent Garden, they were pallid.

Lise Davidsen as Fidelio in the Royal Opera's new production Credit: Alastair Muir

No complaints about the two principals, however. Jonas Kaufmann sings with eloquent nobility and should sound even more confident when restored to full health. Lise Davidsen’s Leonore is nothing short of sublime: I’ve never heard her first-act aria sung with such precision and clarity, such warmth and majesty, and she acts with ardour and moves with grace, making her transvestite disguise unusually plausible. The voice glows and shines: a God-given instrument, used with sensitive artistry. To hear it alone is worth the price of any ticket.

Until March 17. Tickets: 020 7304 4000;