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Opera Chats: Fidelio (Theater an der Wien, 2020)

Fidelio is the only opera penned by Ludwig van Beethoven. This Theater an der Wien production was filmed without an audience during lockdown in 2020. With a libretto by Joseph Sonnleitner and Stephan von Breuning, the opera had its world premiere on this very stage in 1805, but this production showcases the shorter two-act second version from 1806. It was directed by Christoph Waltz and conducted by Manfred Honeck.

Disguised as the young man Fidelio, Leonore (Nicole Chevalier) works for the prison warden Rocco (Christof Fischesser) in order to find out if her missing husband Florestan is held prisoner there. Florestan (Eric Cutler) had challenged the corrupted governor Don Pizarro (Gábor Bretz) and is indeed secretly held prisoner. Can she manage to free him before Don Pizarro has him executed?

MARZELLINE: Mélissa Petit
JAQUINO: Benjamin Hulett
DON FERNANDO: Károly Szemerédy
ERSTER GEFANGENER: Johannes Bamberger
ZWEITER GEFANGENER: Dumitru Mădăraşăn

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

STAGE DESIGN: Barkow Leibinger
COSTUME DESIGN: Judith Holste
LIGHT DESIGN: Henry Braham

■ ■ ■

This time we’ve decided to do the chat as a running commentary while watching instead of discussing it after the fact. Fidelio is brand new to us both, so this is going to be interesting. (At least for us. 😛 )

Francis: New year, new composers!

Traxy: New opera houses too.

F: We’re in the Austrian capital to witness the only opera Beethoven wrote. Do you know what it’s about?

T: Not a clue. You?

F: I don’t know a lot about German operas, let alone this one, except for this being the only one by Beethoven.

T: Didn’t you once say something about how you can still appreciate German opera for the music, even if you don’t understand the lyrics?

F: Yeah, but I’ll have to pay attention to subtitles here, and that might detract from the enjoyment.

T: Whereas the Italian operas you know by heart?

F: Not all of them.

T: But some?

F: Some I know better than others. Don’t quiz me on it.

T: Wasn’t going to, I’ll take your word for it.

F: Good. You don’t wanna hear me trying to sing any of it!

T: Nor you me, for that matter.

F: It’s starting.

T: Holy crap, they’re really throwing that guy down the stairs!

F: That’s brave of them. Of him. You could break your neck doing that.

T: Maybe it’s a stuntman? You don’t really see his face.

F: That would make sense, because that sure don’t look like a dummy.

T: And now that’s done, there’s a musical introduction. A really long one.

F: An “overture” as they’re also known.

T: I know, but this is really long, we’re coming up to a quarter of an hour.

F: Not that you’re complaining.

T: I mean, no, it’s Beethoven. You can’t complain about Beethoven’s music. Ohh, curtain’s going up!

F: And now we can see the stairs properly. Woah, now that’s a staging!

T: Those stairs are almost Escher-esque. And quite … severe.

F: Very monochromatic, very modern.

T: And?

F: … I don’t like it.

T: You could argue Il Trovatore was pretty monochromatic as well.

F: Yeah, but not like this!

T: And giving Il Trovatore a pass because it’s Verdi, perhaps?

F: Very funny.

T: Oh hey, he’s basically going “you’d be prettier if you smiled more”. Yikes.

F: … Wait, I thought the guy was Fidelio?

T: So did I. Fidelio is being played by a woman? I’m confused.

F: The old castrato parts are sung by women these days, but then we’re talking operas a lot older than this one.

T: Hold up, let’s pause it for a sec and read the actual synopsis so we know what it’s actually about, other than “a woman trying to break her husband out of prison”.

F: That’s a good idea. I confess to only having given the synopsis a casual glance. What’s the low-down?

T: Right. Okay. So, Fidelio is the alias of the wife, Leonore, who has sought employment with the man who’s keeping her husband Florestan imprisoned. The couple we were watching were actually Marzelline, daughter of the prison warden Ricco, and the warden’s assistant, Jaquino. Jaquino wants to marry Marzelline, but she’s fallen for Fidelio.

F: Got it. It makes so much more sense now.

T: Yeah, it explains why she wasn’t into her husband in a way I would have expected from a woman who tries to break him out of jail. Because that wasn’t her husband.

F: Exactly. Well, glad we cleared that up.

T: This has spoken lines of dialogue instead of everything being sung. I quite like that.

F: I don’t mind it. Hey, the new guy’s murderous.

T: I don’t really understand why they’re all dressed up like North Koreans.

F: To go with the austere look of the staging?

T: It looks more like an art installation. And Don Pizzarro looks far too gleeful when saying “murder”.

F: Hear me out: don’t trust people who look gleeful at the thought of cold-blooded murder.

T: Good advice.

F: Just a thought.

T: We’re an hour in, there’s an hour and a half to go. Leonora is singing about hope. If only she knew the other two are planning to kill her husband.

F: I feel sorry for her.

T: I feel more sorry for her husband, being kept imprisoned in a horrible dungeon and about to be murdered. She only has to pretend to be a boy.

F: Which she is so good at that the warden’s daughter has fallen in love with her.

T: Indeed. Hah, I just realised one good point about the stairs.

F: Yeah?

T: The performers get to sit down and rest their legs! But they might not be in much need of sitting down and resting their legs as much as I do, on the other hand.

F: Good grief, Marzelline is practically throwing herself at Fidelio!

T: She is, as they say in internet parlance, incredibly thirsty for him.

F: And Fidelio is looking awkward and uncomfortable by her advances.

T: Wouldn’t you be?

F: For sure. Ohh, Jaquino was eavesdropping! Of course he was.

T: And the warden’s like “you thought you’d marry my daughter? LOL.”

F: Now that’s a burn.

T: A sick burn at that. Wait, when did the hole in the ground appear?!

F: When you weren’t looking. So, which one of the prisoners do we think is Florestan?

T: Would the real Florestan please stand up?

F: The guy in the gray shirt is most animated.

T: … They all have grey shirts. Kind of.

F: Guy in the middle.

T: But the one with the beard had the camera dwell on him a lot.

F: It’s successful in keeping us guessing, because I don’t think it’s either of the two that have had solos.

T: You’re right, because he’s actually stuck in a solitary dungeon at the bottom of the prison!

F: Plot twist!

T: Yeah, but not really. He couldn’t be out mixing with the rest of the prisoners if he’s being kept hidden away in secret, could he?

F: Not without being spotted, no.

T: Fidelio is weirdly excited about visiting a dungeon. “Oh, what joy! A dungeon! Yay!”

F: Tempered now by finding out they’re only visiting to dig the secret prisoner a grave.

T: Surely this insistence and enthusiasm over seeing a stranger in his cell should raise a few eyebrows?

F: Nope. Plot armor.

T: At least they get a good workout walking up and down these stairs.

F: And that’s the end of Act 1! Thoughts so far?

T: The music’s great, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Beethoven. The singers are great, of course, I’m really enjoying them.

F: So am I, even though they’re singing in German.

T: I’m sure this isn’t the only German opera we’ve got lined up, so you better get used to it.

F: Yeah, I know. As long as we ain’t planning on branching out into ballet, I’m good.

T: Don’t worry, ballet isn’t my thing either. Those stairs are not my cup of tea, though, nor are the clothes.

F: Staging and costuming I agree leave a few things to be desired, but I have no complaints with regards to music or singing. Hey. We should check if any of these performers are on social media.

T: Are you planning on following every opera performer we come across?

F: Of course not. Everyone isn’t on Instagram.

T: Hah!

F: Are you ready for Act 2?

T: Bring it on!

F: We’re about to find out if we saw Florestan earlier or not. I don’t think we did, I don’t recognize him.

T: He looks like Steven Seagal! No, wait, less so when he’s not lying down.

F: What?!

T: Okay, a mix of Steven Seagal and Danny McBride, but less so now that he’s not horizontal!

F: He’s better at singing opera than the two of those put together. But they ain’t exactly best known for singing.

T: No, they’re not. I really like Florestan’s voice, actually. And it turns out that Florestan was a surname all along!

F: It would “risk too much” to give him some bread? They gave him water a minute ago, and they’re meant to execute him soon anyway! Give the guy some bread! Why is this even a discussion?

T: Otherwise they wouldn’t have as much to sing about. Is that a scalpel?!

F: It beats killing someone with a table knife? But no, that’s definitely a dagger of some sort. Oh damn, she pulled a gun on him! Good for her!

T: Thought you might enjoy that.

F: If this was Verdi, they’d lock them both up and throw away the key, leaving them to sing a final duet about how much they’ll love each other until such time as death comes to claim them both.

T: Like the end of Aida. But this isn’t Verdi.

F: No it ain’t, so it might even have a happy ending.

T: Operas with happy endings? Whatever will they think of next?

F: I’m still expecting them to sing a lover’s duet. They have to, even if it’s in German, right?

T: They’d better! I’d expect nothing less!

F: I ain’t counting this bit. This is more like back-and-forth monologuing. Oh, but this counts. Now that they’re singing together about the love they share. That’s more like it. I’m happy now, but I’ll be even happier when they’re in each other’s arms. That’s what I want to see before this ends.

T: Is that better? They’re finally together.

F: It’s an improvement, but it ain’t perfect. Too restrained for my liking.

T: Why is Don Fernando looking off to the side when addressing her? Is someone holding up cue cards for him?

F: I thought that was odd too.

T: But he is at least wearing something relatively colourful.

F: About time! I don’t mind it. Looks like he’s wearing a summer suit.

T: North Korean style. But what happened to Don Pizzarro? And how is Marzelline going to react to the news that her would-be beloved is actually a married woman?

F: Well, that’s for us to never find out. What the hell?

T: Apparently it’s not important?

F: See, this is why I prefer Italian opera. At least you get a resolution.

T: Because one of them dies and one is left to grieve?

F: It’s still less up in the air than this.

T: I guess the odd cut at the end here to cast, orchestra and staff all on stage is that it wasn’t filmed in front of an audience due to COVID? Because no one’s taking a bow. Let’s check what it says at the beginning again. I remember there being some kind of sign, but I didn’t read it. Something something COVID. Okay, here we go.

F: I don’t speak German. What does it say?

T: Something along the lines of because of a decision made by the Austrian government, all performances of Fidelio have been cancelled. Please see the theatre’s website for details about getting the cost of tickets refunded.

F: Oh. Yeah. That explains the weird curtain call. At least they filmed it so we could see it.

T: And so they could sell it to various broadcasters and hopefully get some of their investment back.

F: I can’t wait to get back to the opera and see performances live on stage again.

T: Same here. The only thing that concerns me about the Wagner opera we have tickets for in June is the sheer length of it. My bladder has a life of its own, and we’re talking a 5-6 hour performance.

F: How many acts are there?

T: Three?

F: If you’re lucky, there’s a break after every act.

T: When everyone will be scrambling for the toilets at the same time! No thank you. That’s the biggest benefit of watching at home, being able to pause whatever you’re watching and pop to the loo and then come back without missing anything.

F: But you don’t get the energy of the crowd and the performers. It’s a kind of magic all on its own.

T: True. So, what do you think about Fidelio?

F: I thought the performers were great, both with the singing and the acting. It had some drama to it. But I like my operas to be less stylistic and less cold.

T: You thought this was cold?! With Marzelline being super hot for Fidelio?!

F: It felt superficial.

T: Okay?

F: We had the actual couple reunite in the dungeon and when they finally embrace they start by singing about God. They just don’t look as happy about it as Tosca and Cavaradossi. Or even Aida and Radamès.

T: The difference being that unlike those two couples, at least Mr and Mrs Florestan get to leave the dungeon and have a happily ever after.

F: Just sayin’ their love life seems a lot less interesting is all.

T: Or you’re being a snob because it’s a German opera.

F: I’m sure there are plenty other suitably passionate German operas, but this ain’t one of them.

T: Or it’s the way this has been staged or directed.

F: Regardless, it’s my personal opinion that the world ain’t worse off because Beethoven only wrote the one opera.

T: Woah, them’s fightin’ words!

F: So sue me. I like what I like. I don’t feel like this delivered on what I personally look for in an opera. You?

T: I thought it was good, but it did feel as if the plot was dragged out a lot.

F: See?

T: Haha, well, let me explain. Act 2 is “Florestan is in the dungeon where Fidelio and Rocco dig a grave. Don Fernando shows up, Fidelio is Leonore, Florestan is freed, the end.” The rest is just padding, like with the whole thing about giving him water and bread.

F: Not to be devil’s advocate here or anything, but you gotta have some padding.

T: I agree, but the padding here doesn’t feel like it’s trying to convey a lot. Not with characterisation or story, it’s just there because if they didn’t have things to sing about Act 2 would take about five minutes instead of an hour.

F: Damn, you’re a harsher critic than I am, and I thought you’d be less inclined to be biased.

T: Well, there’s efficient storytelling and then there’s faff. This feels like a lot of faff when it could have had more things to it.

F: Like actual passion?

T: If you like. I was leaning more toward peril. Even though Florestan is said to be about to be executed, there’s no real urgency, or that there’s any real danger about, and considering how quickly and neatly everything is wrapped up? It feels a bit like they just went “and then they lived happily ever after, the end”.

F: Like a rush job?

T: Yeah. Actually.

F: I think I may have taught you too well. You’re developing a taste for Italian operas!

T: The first one I watched was Carmen, which isn’t Italian, so how do you figure that?

F: Because all the other ones, until this one, were in Italian?

T: Fair point. But we’ve got other ones not in Italian lined up this year, so we’ll see how that goes. Including Mozart.

F: Singing Mozart is supposed to be a balm for the voice, but what would I know?

T: Do you sing?

F: I’ve been known to carry a tune. I just don’t sing opera. That I leave that to the professionals.

T: That’s probably for the best.

F: Do you have a preference for the next opera for us to watch?

T: We could maybe give Mozart a try, actually? I mean he was Austrian, but I think he did some operas in Italian. Così fan tutte is not a German title, and I hear it’s a romantic comedy.

F: Okay, I’ll see what I can find. Until then – a presto!

Francis

An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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