Opera where all the stage’s a prison

We may have been a long way from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, but with singing this good and orchestra playing freed from the dampening pit of an opera house, Puccini’s score was alive with protest and beauty.

New Statesman
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Image: Getty

Fidelio Tosca
Coliseum, London WC2
Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

It goes against the fundamental principles of opera – Wagner’s all-consuming Gesamtkunstwerk of a genre – to perform operatic works in concert. Music is just one part of a dramatic experience that was immersive centuries before east London theatre companies first popularised the concept. No wonder that performances outside the opera house have often been seen as second best, a musical consolation prize in an age of austerity. But with directors increasingly turning auteur and staging a bloody coup all over the stage, has the concert hall become the place to see opera as its authors intended?

Calixto Bieito’s new Fidelio for English National Opera will certainly have driven some audiences from the theatre – for this is emphatically Bieito’s Fidelio, not Beethoven’s. Replacing the original spoken text with Jorge Luis Borges, a Spanish prison with a spaceage maze of platforms and pillars, and interpolating music composed some 20 years after the opera, the director doesn’t so much stamp his mark as stamp his foot through the fragile fabric of this work.

An attack on this Fidelio isn’t an argument for keeping operas in glass cases, preserved from innovation or alteration; it is an argument for applying a little intelligence. An opera about political and personal freedom cries out for contemporary application. Beethoven’s score can take a lot of messing around and still retain its beauty. But when human emotions are replaced with philosophical abstractions (writing “freedom” in marker pen on signs around the prisoners’ necks in a terribly post-structural subversion of the last scene) and coherence with Konzept, we risk losing much more than we gain.

The music struggled to emerge from the chaos of its mise en scène, and just in case it might succeed, under Edward Garner’s incisive direction, Bieito dealt it a death blow by opting for the Leonore No 3 overture (the longest and least-often used of the four surviving overtures for the opera), weighing down the action even before it began. Aside from Sarah Tynan’s vivacious Marzelline and the work of the excellent ENO chorus, the singing couldn’t supplement what the production lacked. Emma Bell’s Leonore was curiously muted in performance, lacking her usual clarity at the top of her range, while Stuart Skelton’s Florestan never bettered the beauty and range of tone-colours of his first note. The biggest disappointment, however, was Philip Horst’s Pizarro, struggling to project vocally and lost in Bieito’s fantasy of neurosis. Prisons of the mind might be the order of the day, but there’s no excuse for a director to find himself trapped in there, too, along with his characters.

A prison of quite a different kind was to be found at the Royal Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool for a concert performance of Tosca, part of the mighty baritone Bryn Terfel’s residency with the orchestra. We may have been a long way from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, but with singing this good and orchestra playing freed from the dampening pit of an opera house, Puccini’s score was alive with protest and beauty.

Under the baton of their chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra were scene-stealingly good. The shading of their woodwind matched any set for atmospherics, painting Cavaradossi’s execution in the chillest of shades, while their strings swelled with sickening persuasion for Scarpia’s seduction.

The director, Amy Lane, kept the action simple, drawing all the drama from Puccini’s score itself. Uncluttered by concepts and complicated staging, the physicality of Terfel’s Scarpia was all the more dominant in so simple a space. Vocally, it was a crafted performance, more croon than bellow, occupying a much tighter range of musical emotion than would be possible in an opera house. The effect was to complicate the psychology of the role, narrowing the gap between seducer and psychopath until the confusion became the character.

Though occasionally tending flat, Victoria Yastrebova’s Tosca was a dramatic match for Terfel, facing down his force with brittle sincerity. Both, however, were outdone by the Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine, whose Cavaradossi was ardent and exquisitely sung, holding nothing back.

In opera, as in theatre, what’s on the page is only half the story. But the transformative drama of performance is generated as much in the ear as the eye, and in emotion more than either. That is something Bieito and his fellow director-auteurs would do well to remember the next time they seek to reinvent a classic.