Coming back from the long weekend, there’s lots to reflect on, but mostly I am itching to review the production of Fidelio that Brian and I saw on Saturday night. Not because it was good, mind you, but because it was so bad as to amuse on a whole different level. In all areas – direction, casting, artistic vision, political message – this production didn’t manage to do a single thing right. A remarkable feat for an opera company with some experience, it’s hard to know exactly what they were thinking when they made the choices that lead to this production.
Beethoven’s Fidelio is based on the true story of a woman during the French revolution who dressed as a man in order to get work as a prison guard and thus free her husband held in captivity. The composer resets the story in Spain, creating a work that powerfully indicts the abuse of authority and champions the human right to liberation of ideas and of person. It’s an unusual opera to start with – given the propensity for actual spoken dialogue throughout and the fact that the protaganist doesn’t even appear until the second act – and I can imagine was considered very radical in its time.
However, rather than explore that piece for the power it could have (particularly in these violent and complex times) Director Dejan Miladinovic instead chose to re-interpret it in a way that becomes increasingly incoherent throughout and by the end of the second act was (quite literally) laughable. The choice? Recasting the story in East Germany 1989 – which put the lyrics and the setting completely at odds with each other throughout. The protaganist in this tale is a photojournalist (Florestan) who is arrested by the Stasi and imprisoned for taking photographs at a demonstration. His wife (Lenore/Fidelio) discovers his arrest and in the first Act we come upon her dressed as a prison guard while the machinations to kill her husband are at work around her.
Just why Florestan is so hated (in particular by one Comrade Pizarro) is never reconciled in this version of the opera – though in the original story Florestan and Pizarro are actual political rivals for the same position of power. Having not seen the original telling, I can only guess that at least one number was removed from Miladnivoic’s disaster because otherwise the story is very incomplete. And thus, with no explanation Pizarro sings at length about his hatred of Florestan, his desire to starve him to death, to stab him in the heart, to humiliate him in death etc. Which is totally bizarre. I mean, Florestan is a photojournalist – not a political leader, not a radical – and for some reason a high general in the Communist party wants to stab him in the heart?
It gets even worse in the second act when Pizarro and Florestan finally meet face to face in the dungeon and Pizarro sings about how Florestan tried to cheat him and screw him and wasn’t going to get away with it! ??? Again, what? The dude took some photographs!
This is what I mean about lyrical inconsistency. Almost as bad as that is the continual beseeching of God for help by all the characters in the prison. Not that there is anything wrong with prayer asking for help but given that we’re talking about Communist East Germany (Germany not being the most religious of countries even before the war that halved the country), it just comes off as odd.
And in the final scene (which I’ll discuss in more detail momentarily) the wall comes down between east and west and instead of singing about the liberation of the country, the chorus final number instead celebrates Lenore, the valiant wife who saved her husband. Of course this is the original score and it makes sense in the original telling – but if you are going to reset this in the last days of East Germany then you are risking inconsistency problems like this. End result? The lyrics are often so mismatched that it’s comedic. And this is not a comic opera.
Getting away from the core problem of the whole piece, I questioned most of the artistic choices made thereafter. One area that I found very difficult to understand was the photographic direction. In order to tell parts of the story (which as I mentioned you can’t do with the lyrics being what they are), photographic images are flashed on “the wall”. This could have been effective if there was any consistency or overarching artistic purpose defined by the director. In the beginning, the photos were used to create a demonstration scene that was somewhat convincing (even if Florestan as photojournalist was not, he seems to be quite hapless in his wanderings and photo-taking until the Stasi circle him on bicycles and arrest him). But by the middle of Act 1, during Lenore’s solo in particular – the photos quickly lost their charm for me. During this solo Florestan and Lenore are projected onto the wall in their happier times – literally frolicking in Stanley Park for some not-quite-professional photographer. The photos themselves are an uninspired version of romance, and the two actors are clearly not comfortable with each other or for the camera – giving each post a staged or forced happiness that is creepy rather than endearing.
After this point there are several more odd slides that appear in Act 1 – at one point a drawing of Marx, Engles and Lenin – at another point a slide that I think was supposed to depict two Stasi officers but looked like a child’s drawing. And at the end, the depiction of the wall coming down is through photograph but rather than choosing powerful images from that time (I remember tremendously gripping pictures coming across the television in 1989), a bland melange of crowd shots that depict very little is used instead. Honestly, it’s hard to know what the thought process was behind the image choices. And since the images are central to the telling of the story – there is no diverting one’s attention from them.
In any case, nothing was more ludicrous than the artistic choices made at the very end, once Florestan is freed and General Pizarro is arrested (not by men in Stasi uniforms, but by men in suits and ties!) – the new Governor (who is dressed like a federal suit and tie bureaucrat) takes to the stage and literally sings “Rejoice! I am your new head of state!”. This, is ridiculous enough as the people walk through the crack in the wall – but when Florestan is wheeled out in a hospital bed by a doctor and a nurse to deliver his finale (with Lenore at his side) – well this was truly the moment at which I started to laugh and could not stop. I was polite about it of course, but poor Brian had to sit there while I tried desperately not to erupt in to fits while at the same time trying to maintain his own composure. Really – there ought to be a rule: never, ever pair a suit-n-tie bureaucrat with a man in a hospital bed to lead a chorus in a closing finale.
The chorus itself – who was supposedly celebrating the fall of the wall and Lenore at the same time – was choreographed into “celebration pose” which consisted of some rather wooden boogeying and some stilted smiling. It was a bit like watching robots get happy but not really. I don’t blame the chorus members themselves, cause someone told them to act that way – and whoever that was shouldn’t be allowed to direct another VOS opera.
And if all that crappy direction wasn’t enough? Other than Ferando there wasn’t a single stellar performer on the stage. Not only were the voices weak in many cases (the skinny soprano – always a gamble) but there was very little charisma pouring out from them. Did they know they were performing in a dud of an opera? It sure seemed that way to me.
While I’m the first to admit that I don’t know much about opera – I will say that the reception by the audience was the most lacklustre I’ve seen ever at the Queen E. and as we left at the end (people seemed to be rushing to get the hell away from that travesty) we picked up on other people who had equally strong (negative) reactions to the piece. So it wasn’t just us.
At the end of it all Brian said that he was glad we had gone to see Fidelio even though we weren’t sure what we were in for. It’s bizarre enough to make something worth retelling at parties, and besides that we laughed all the way home and for hours afterwards – which you know is a good thing even if it wasn’t the intent of the work itself.