Opera in outer space? Classic FM's resident Beethoven expert John Suchet reviews Opéra de Lyon's most unusual production of Fidelio.
When you consider the struggle Beethoven had writing his only opera — three versions, four overtures, 'my poor shipwrecked opera' he once called it — I often wonder what he would think if he knew the final version would be considered one of the great masterpieces of opera, and be performed around the world many times each year.
Being Beethoven, I imagine he wouldn’t be in the least bit suprised. "This music is not for you, it’s for future generations," he said of one of his string quartets, when it received a critical mauling.
But if you had told him the latest production of Fidelio was set in outer space, on a spaceship that has been accidentally ejected from the solar system, the principal characters moving on small remotely controlled platforms and dressed in shimmering silver spacesuits, well, I suspect even The Master might have expressed a certain amount of surprise.
So did I. Many surprises. The first being a female narrator expressing in poetic lines the galactic setting. She made a lengthy entrance at the start of Act I, even before the Overture. Five minutes in, I confess I longed to hear the opening musical flourish even more than usual.
The greatest surprise, certainly, was that throughout the opera there was an invisible gauze curtain in front of the action, on to which were projected remarkable — and remarkably complicated — computerised graphics. Sometimes these were words, without narrator, which then broke up, the letters tumbling to oblivion. Sometimes they supported the narrative literally — huge gold coins from which gigantic eagles emerged during Rocco's Gold aria, digitally created soldiers marching in perfect unison to accompany Don Pizarro's first entrance.
Most effectively, digitally created prisoners, backs to the audience, appeared as the prisoners emerged into the daylight towards the end of Act I. At first you thought they were real figures, until you realised they were totally motionless, but then the male chorus, in similar prison fatigues, emerged on the stage, becoming more lifelike as the digital image faded.
I wondered how the American conceptual artist Gary Hill — responsible for this galactic vision — would handle the dungeon scene at the start of Act II. The answer was to have Florestan hanging in mid air, suspended and swinging as if in death throes after execution. This created the problem of getting him to the ground, alive and seemingly well, for the dénouement. Not for the first time, you had to suspend your disbelief.
I imagine Gary Hill’s aim is to prove that the simple story of Fidelio is universally true for all generations of humanity, even in a far galaxy many centuries hence. He succeeds, but at what cost to the opera itself?
You spend so much time, and expend so much concentration, marvelling at the graphics and struggling to make sense of the video wizardry, that you sometimes have to remind yourself you are listening to glorious music. That invisible gauze curtain is literally a barrier between the audience and the action on stage.
The conductor Kazushi Ono, in his fifth year at Lyon Opera , conjured a fine sound from the pit. I could have done with more sheer power, particularly from the brass, to allow the music to assert itself over the graphics.
The same goes for the singing. The German soprano Michaela Kaune suffered a near fatal wobble in her great aria 'Komm Hoffnung', which unnerved the solo horn, while the Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff was so determined to make an impact with his opening cry of 'Gott, welch' Dunkel hier' that he held the 'Gott' for a fraction too long.
But I will not utter another word of even faint criticism of the singers. They had so much to think of, staying upright on those small mobile platforms, maintaining their balance, moving in costumes which looked seriously restricting — Pavlo Hunka as Don Pizarro was dressed in a monstrous frock which looked like solid metal, so that I dread to think how chafed he was after the performance — that the actual act of singing was quite possibly not top priority.
The production comes to the Edinburgh International Festival this summer. I shall go and see it again. I suspect the narrator might have been shelved, or at least curtailed, and I would not complain at some simplification of the computer wizardy.
But I can almost hear the old curmudgeon saying in my ear, "Don’t be so negative. My opera is universal, for all humanity, and for all time. Set on a spaceship in a distant galaxy? Well, why not?"