Monday, 31 October 2011

Fidelio at the Wiener Staatsoper: o schwere Prüfung


Wiener Staatsoper, 27/11/2011

Robert Dean Smith | Florestan
Waltraud Meier | Leonore
Albert Dohmen | Don Pizarro
Markus Marquardt | Don Fernando
Lars Woldt | Rocco
Anita Hartig | Marzelline
Benjamin Bruns | Jaquino

Bertrand de Billy | Conductor
Otto Schenk | Director

The one word to sum up this Schenk Fidelio is vacuity. Some would argue that the term applies equally well to all his productions, but this staging is lacking in more than just ideas. Take the blocking: has Schenk ever been more static than this? It’s a good nine-tenths park and bark for the singing and there’s astonishingly little movement to accompany the spoken action. Stage entrances/exits, the digging of the grave (though not the actual grave-digging duet), and some wincingly awful high-fiving of the prisoners at the end is about it. To cap off the snoozefest there’s no variety in the sets and costumes beyond brown, beige and grey.

Singing was disappointing. Anita Hartig sang Marzelline with bright and clear tone which faltered in the upper reaches. The final chorus saw some improvement in control, and though she didn’t make much of an effort to blend with Waltraud Meier there was the brief ‘verlässt uns nicht’ moment where Marzelline follows Leonore up to the B flat, which was simply lovely (Meier also great here, and orchestra unexpectedly supportive). Lars Woldt’s Rocco was the same coarsely-played figure as his Waldner in Arabella, the too-knowing-by-half Del Boy act he put on when singing about money in that opera reprised here, to no better effect. He wasn’t so loud, but there was a roughness to the tone and anything above D4 was bellowed. Markus Marquardt’s Don Fernando was exactly the same and loud, so you can imagine what I thought of that. Albert Dohmen was on solid form; I would even say as good as I’ve ever heard him, though that impression is probably coloured by the company he was in. Robert Dean Smith gave a rocky performance: top notes swung between squeezed and strained, though he wasn’t helped by Bertrand de Billy (doesn’t this man understand that singers have to breathe!?). ‘O namenlose Freude!’ was pushed until both Smith and Meier were quite breathless, but not because de Billy was revelling in the speed – too little crispness for that. The maddeningly inscrutable tempo choices also spoiled the overture: an inexpressive acceleration to the dominant followed by a haltingly inept reduction in speed for the horns (incidentally, not great, or even accurate, but they were Wiener horns, which is a schwere Prüfung indeed).

You can see I’ve been saving the best of a mediocre bunch for last. Yes, Waltraud Meier still has the vocal goods, even if I found her Leonore as underpowered as her Kundry last April (also at the Staatsoper). Tone was warm and rich in colour, and phrases thoughtfully contoured. But de Billy failed to give her support and the only time she really cut through the orchestra was with her loud top B – not terribly responsible singing, but a wonderfully pitched note which momentarily blasted some electricity through the otherwise lacklustre musical proceedings.

Final mention goes to the members of the Staatsopernchor, who didn’t just sound good by comparison but could easily hold their own in a first-rate Fidelio. Their Gefangenenchor had it all: carefully balanced inner voices, finely blended ensemble and an exemplary cadential diminuendo. How disappointing that these guys always go unmentioned whenever one reads or hears goldfish bowl comments about the singularity of the Vienna State Opera.


Image credit Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

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