Image description: A high-contrast, profile image of a woman in red, blue, and black. She holds her hand close to her face, and grasps a pole with that same hand. She looks seriously into the distance, to the left of the camera.
By Lachlan Serventy
Fidelio is arguably one of the weaker German operas. A story about the liberation of aristocrats by aristocrats from aristocrats, Fidelio was Beethoven’s attempt at completing his mastery of the art and at winning the favour of the ruling classes. After all, someone had to pay for his work. However, as with most attempts to blend art with political appeasement, it didn’t quite come off.
The fact that the music is up to the standards usually self-imposed by Beethoven is most likely what saved Fidelio from artistic obscurity. The music calls for powerful voices. Strong performers.
Fidelio’s message of liberation has been a tinderbox for many political movements. Fidelio was the first opera performed in Berlin after the end of WWII. For many, it represented a retrospective view of a Germany that had allowed itself to slip out of humanity and freedom, and into brutal tyranny. What price can one put on justice and freedom? This has come to be the central question of Fidelio.
I was excited to see the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO)’s performance of Fidelio. It’s been a few months since I’ve seen an opera and I’ve missed it. As well, I’ve always had a soft spot for Beethoven’s work. There’s something about art against the odds that resonates with a lot of people, and adds to the significance of Beethoven’s work.
WASO’s performance reflects perfectly the successes and shortcomings of Fidelio. The music and vocal performances are enthralling. Conductor Asher Fisch leads the orchestra in a defiant and resounding performance. The vocalists are all wonderfully cast, and special attention must be paid to Jonathan Lemalu, our Rocco, and Warwick Fyfe, who plays the part of the cruel Don Pizzaro.
The crowning glory of the entire production, however, is Christiane Libor’s performance as the eponymous Fidelio/Leonore. Libor has recently completed a run of Fidelio with the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg, and her familiarity with the material, coupled with her talent, makes for an amazing performance.
Unfortunately, Libor’s voice is not enough to totally compensate for the shortcomings of the performance.
The production team has shoe-horned an accompanying narration into the script. While the narration is delivered well by Australian stage stalwart Eryn Jean Norvill, the content feels condescending. Fidelio is not a difficult opera to follow. No one would accuse it of complexity. Yet, the flow of WASO’s performance is repeatedly interrupted by attempts to explain what should be shown, and not told.
As well, an attempt to tie in criticism of modern political situations is tacked onto the narration.
I strongly believe that any artistic endeavour has a responsibility to engage with the political climate that it finds itself in. As well as that, it’s important that artists do not shy away from blunt, head-on attacks against injustice.
This responsibility comes with the condition that the message of the art must work with the art itself. WASO’s script unfortunately doesn’t do that. This has the effect of drawing the audience out of Fidelio and into an unnecessary commentary track.
This is the center of the disappointment that I felt coming out of Fidelio. Now more than ever, in order to capture the audience, performers and artists must respect the audience. They must challenge the audience. Holding our hand through a story, instead of allowing us to engage fully with the work as it stands, will only alienate the audience.
That being said, I cannot stress enough how well the vocalists, chorus, and orchestra carried the performance. If you’re in the mood to listen to wonderful vocal performance and a great orchestra, then Fidelio still has something for you.
And who knows – maybe you’ll be as lucky as I was and catch the tail-end of an Aldous Harding concert in the gardens behind the concert hall.
Fidelio ran until the 1st of March. You can find out about WASO’s upcoming performances here.
Two and a half Ducats out of five.
Lachlan Serventy loves a good Beethoven sesh with the boys.
Image courtesy of Perth Festival