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Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Orchestra and Choir Zürich Oper. Conductor: Daniele Gatti. Opernhaus Zürich 11.3.2011 (JMI)

Production: Zürich Oper

Direction: Katharina Thalbag

Sets and Costumes: Ezio Toffolutti

Lighting: Hans-Rudolf Kunz


Leonore: Ricarda Merbeth

Florestan: Michael König

Rocco: Alfred Muff

Pizarro: Laurent Naouri

Marzelline: Sandra Trattnigg

Jaquino: Christoph Strehl

Don Fernando: Martin Gantner

Production Picture © Suzanne Schwiertz

I had not been at the Zurich opera since January of 2009, when I had the opportunity to attend some spectacular opera performances during a single weekend: Simon Boccanegra with Leo Nucci, Semele with Cecilia Bartoli and Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme -s omething that may not be possible in any other city besides Zurich. It is not surprising, therefore, that I am once again back in Zurich, although the program this time was not quite as attractive.

This Katharina Thalbag production of Fidelio was premiered in October 2008 and raised high expectations-at least with me, but ultimately her work here succumbs to routine. The stage in the first act is a semicircular space surrounded by massive walls, reminding me of the Jürgen Flimm production two years ago at Barcelona's Liceu. The second Act offers us a huge underground wall to which Florestan is chained: Nothing that could offend even the most traditionalist opera-goers. Costumes reflect more modern tastes... perhaps set around the 50s, but offer nothing of particular interest, except perhaps for the sulphur coloured uniforms of the prisoners. Nothing strikes as remarkable in Mrs. Thalbag's stage direction, the characters are predictable, particularly Pizarro, and the direction of the actors simplistic... something that may have been exacerbated by this being a new cast, not supervised by the director.

When this production was premiered the conductor was Bernard Haitink. In this revival Daniele Gatti has taken on the musical direction. Fidelio with Gatti was one of the great attractions of this trip to Zurich but here, too, the result was somewhat uneven. I found his reading of the first Act third rate: The tempi too sluggish, the orchestra too loud, and the whole music too darn dull. In short: all the ingredients of a boring performance. Fortunately things changed considerably for the better in the second Act, showing from the start dramatic tension, as if Mr. Gatti had decided to conduct with his heart and not with his baton. In the end, Daniele Gatti redeemed himself with an excellent Leonore 3 and a final scene that contained all the strength and the emotion that had been missing in the first act. The Chorus was not particularly inspired in the Prisoners scene, but they, too, got better in time for the final chorus.

Ricarda Merbeth as Leonore was a surprising cast choice for me, but her clean and well projected performance was remarkable, especially at the top of the range. The voice lacks some vocal weight for the character, and her low notes could be stronger, but-true to the story-she came out a winner in the end.

Michael König was Florestan and he had to struggle against the cruel tessitura that Beethoven wrote for this character, as impossible to sing as Bacchus in Richard Strauss. Michael König has a wide and well suited voice for the character and I would say that he came out even, if close to losing it near the end.

French Laurent Naouri was vocally insufficient as Pizarro, having neither the necessary vocal heft for the character nor any color in it. Being a good actor is not enough for a satisfactory Pizarro.

Swiss bass-baritone Alfred Muff is an institution at the Zurich theatre where he has sang for so many years. His Rocco seemed too modest in vocal terms and his vocal shape leaves much to be desired, which is, alas, not surprising at almost 62. He is and continues to be more baritone than bass and this does not work in a character like Rocco. Sandra Trattnigg was an excellent Marzelline, well suited in vocal terms and with a pleasant timbre. Martin Gantner lacked the depth and power for Don Fernando and ended up inaudible at the bottom of the range.

José Mª Irurzun

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