For a few days last week Reggio Emilia was the centre of talk in the European operatic world. Claudio Abbado, 75 and in not the best of health for several years now, was making a rare conducting appearance in Italy at the splendid Teatro Valli. His son Daniele is Artistic Director there. And for the first time in his career he was tackling Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio. Given the maestro’s reputation the expectations were high. I managed to get a ticket – not the easiest task, though getting a hotel was even harder – and made the four hour train trip up for last Tuesday’s performance.
The Maestro(centre) taking a bow with his solosists, (l to r) Jorg Schneider, Giorgio Surjan, Albert Dohmen, Julia Kleiter, Abbado, Anja Kampe, Clifton Forbis, Diogenes Randes, Ilker Arayurek and Levente Pall.
So was it worth the time, effort and money? Well let’s just say it was one of the most exciting evenings I’ve spent at an opera in the past 20 years. From the first notes of the overture (the wonderful Mahler Chamber Orchestra)Abbado’s Fidelio had a drive and dramatic tension which made the more introspective moments even more moving. The Canon was lyrically breathtaking and the Prisoners’ chorus (the men of the Arnold Schoenberg Chor)heartbreaking in its simplicity. The great second act hymn to freedom was almost hysterical in its joy but both Abbado and stage director Chris Klaus told us that joy was to be short-lived.
This was Klaus’s first opera production and in many ways it showed. The action had been moved forward to the French Revolution and the guillotine was an ever present threat. At times it also became a senseless distraction – Giorgio Surjan was totally upstaged as one was assembled behind him when he launched into his “Gold” aria. But many of Klaus’s images where disturbing and beautiful, often at the same time – the hooded, faceless prisoners crawling on their bellies from darkness into the light of spring; a wheelchair bound Don Pizzaro(a chilling Albert Dohmen), his body as crippled as his mind; Marzelline (Julie Kleiter) turning in horror and disgust from the unmasked Leonore; the constant grovelling and money grabbing Rocco (Surjan)as ready to turn on his old master as he is to grovel for the new; and the final image of the chorus that had been so joyfully hymning freedom once again trapped and overshadowed by guards and a rank of guillotines. Florestan, now the new prison governor, had learned nothing from his imprisonment and nothing would change. It was chilling but all of a piece with Abbado’s dark view.
Both conductor and director where blessed with singers who committed themselves to this bleak vision. Anja Kampe’s Leonore (right) was strongly drawn and sung; and if her blazing Absecheulicher! garnered no applause it was because Abbado would countenance none as he pushed the drama on. Though Clifton Forbis had all the required power for Florestan’s great aria I found his voice tight and there was a constriction in much of his phrasing. The discovery of the evening was Kleiter – Mozart-like in her exchanges with Jorg Schneider (Jacquino) her voice blended beautifully with those around her and her Marzelline was a completely drawn character. Klaus achieved that with all of the singers – they delivered their lengthy spoken dialogue with conviction and only occasionally lapsed into operatic acting.
Ultimately the evening – despite the ensemble curtain calls I wrote about previously – was Abbado’s vision of Fidelio – raw and terrible in its darkness. And I repeat it was one of the most exciting evenings I’ve spent in an opera house in 20 years.
The production photos are by Alfredo Anceschi. This production will play several performances each in Madrid, Baden-Baden,Ferrara and Modena over the next year. It will be interesting to see how it develops over that time – I may just head up to Modena to see it again next year.
13 aprile – San Martino Ignacio