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Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 29.3.2011 (MB)

Leonore - Nina Stemme

Florestan - Endrik Wottrich

Rocco - Kurt Rydl

Marzelline - Elizabeth Watts

Jaquino - Steven Ebel

Don Pizarro - John Wegner

Don Fernando - Sir Willard White

First Prisoner - Ji Hyun Kim

Second Prisoner - Dawid Kimberg

Jürgen Flimm (director)

Daniel Dooner (revival director)

Robert Israel (set designs)

Florence von Gerkan (costumes)

Duane Schuler (lighting)

A major attraction to this Fidelio was to have been the opportunity to hear Kirill Petrenko in the pit, but unfortunately, back problems rendered him unable to continue rehearsals. Petrenko has been named the next General Music Director in Munich and will also lead the 2013 Bayreuth Ring. Though Covent Garden audiences have had chance to admire him before, in my case in the 2009 Rosenkavalier and, some time previously, in a splendid double-bill of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung, his absence was a disappointment. Sir Mark Elder, in situ for rehearsals of the forthcoming production of The Tsar's Bride, was his replacement, though David Syrus will take over the end of the run.

Elder, known principally for later music, took some time to find his feet here. The overture married unsteadiness with charmless adherence to the metronome. Strings sometimes struggled to make themselves heard, though from a purely orchestral perspective, horns and woodwind sounded quite magical. As can often be the case, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House outplayed its conductor. The first number continued along an unsteady path, mixing a somewhat Italianate lightness - doubtless some would claim to find this refreshing, though I found it straightforwardly inappropriate - with arbitrary tempo changes, suggestive less of Furtwängler than of a caricature of Mengelberg by someone who has never heard him. Elements of such arbitrary juxtaposition remained later on, but for the most part it was a surer Fidelio that emerged. There were, however, a few too many discrepancies between pit and stage, none more noticeable than during Don Fernando's music in the final scene. The orchestra continued to play very well indeed, certainly far better than it had under the dispiriting leadership of Antonio Pappano last time around in 2007. My suspicion would be that Elder's reading will settle down in subsequent performances, though there are only three left that he will conduct.

A vocal report must also be mixed. Nina Stemme, though she did not quite nail the climax of 'O, namenlose Freude,' was in every other respect very impressive indeed, quite justifying her reputation, with fine intonation combined with Classical purity of line, no matter what hurdles Beethoven placed in her way. She made a relatively plausible 'boy' too, for those who care. Endrik Wottrich, however, was simply not up to the task. I shall doubtless be forever spoiled by the staggering achievement of Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan, but odious comparisons aside, Wottrich proved both feeble of tone and unable to hit a startling proportion of his notes. Kurt Rydl stood out by virtue of credible delivery of his dialogue; the rest of the cast tended to speak as if in a foreign-language school play. Unfortunately, Rydl's wobble became too distracting even for those of us inclined to charity on account of past glories. Elizabeth Watts, however, made a sparkling Marzelline and Steven Ebel a similarly winning Jaquino. John Wegner's Pizarro was darker and more convincingly malevolent than many of the cartoon villains we often endure: a significant achievement that. Willard White's Fernando did little to convince, however, again showing a singer past his prime. Second Prisoner Dawid Kimberg shone in his brief moment of glory - not for the first time. The Royal Opera Chorus was truly excellent, full of sound, which could yet be withdrawn when necessary, and startlingly impressive in diction, putting many German choruses to shame.

As for Jürgen Flimm's production, this time revived by Daniel Dooner, it remains a depressing affair. Perhaps less full of arbitrary goings on than last time, it seemed still more lacking in coherence. Updated to what appears to be a mid-twentieth century Latin American country, albeit to no particular purpose, there is little or no focus upon Beethoven's burning flame of freedom; Marzelline's ironing makes more of a (tiresome) impression. Far from feeling enclosed and oppressive, Florestan's cell is vast, so much so that one can almost understand why Leonore fails to see him to start with. The final scene simply falls apart, direction of the characters faltering whilst garishly clad prisoners' spouses and children parade around. It feels as aimless as that.

Mark Berry

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