Fidelio in Munich: Led to freedom

Of all composers, it’s Beethoven who we think we understand. The greatest achievement of Calixto Bieito and Daniele Gatti’s strange Bayerische Staatsoper Fidelio is how it disrupts our expectations and banishes calcified certainty and cliché. The prison exists only in the minds of the alienated characters, and Leonore finds that freeing her husband isn’t quite as simple as finding him and dressing him in a suit. The production’s fragmented dreaminess and vaguely unfinished quality can be frustrating, but its handful of revelatory moments and wonderful performances add up to a powerful experience.

Beethoven, Fidelio. Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2010. New production by Calixto Bieito, sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Ingo Krügler, lights by Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Daniele Gatti with Anja Kampe (Leonore), Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan), Franz-Josef Selig (Rocco), Wolfgang Koch (Don Pizarro), Laura Tatulescu (Marzelline), Jussi Myllys (Jaquino), LazArt Quartett.

Sit back, guys, this one is going to take a good amount of space. Also, I again had a restricted-view seat, and the chance I missed something important is pretty good, alas.

This production does not take place in a literal prison. The set is a shifting maze of glass and metal, in the first act a vertical structure of floors and ladders and, in Florestan’s cell, a horizontal one of hallways. Each character is a captive of this strikingly beautiful Borgesian labyrinth, each inside their own private mental prisons, alienated by the proverbial Modern Condition. Each has an obsession that prevents them from reaching the labyrinth’s center and the freedom found there. It’s a Bildungsroman for the Cormac McCarthy set.

Before the overture, Leonore opens the opera by reciting a Jorge Luis Borges poem. Here it is in English (it’s from In Praise of Darkness).  Maybe the labyrinth doesn’t have a center at all; whether there is any escape is a key issue of the production:

There’ll never be a door. You’re inside
and the keep encompasses the world
and has neither obverse nor reverse
nor circling wall nor secret center.
Hope not that the straightness of your path
that stubbornly branches off in two,
that stubbornly branches off in two,
will have an end. Your fate is ironbound,
as is your judge. Forget the onslaught
of the bull that is a man and whose
strange and plural form haunts the tangle
of unending interwoven stone.
He does not exist. In the black dusk,
hope not even for the savage beast.

The overture that follows is not the Fidelio but full-blown Leonore No. 3, here given a schizophrenically dissociated performance by Gatti, moving between Zen-like waves of crescendos and decrescendos and frantically fast sections. Onstage, Leonore takes off her shirt and binds her breasts. This is important: it is the denial of her sexuality and single-minded need to find Florestan that prevents her from escaping the labyrinth, not the lack of Florestan himself. (Giving the woman her own purpose in life, what a concept!)

Bieito has eliminated the spoken text almost entirely and inserted short quotations from Borges and McCarthy in its place. But they do not serve remotely the same function; most are some variation on “I am trapped in the labyrinth,” offering a few moments of spoken interlude between the musical numbers. The series of musical numbers does not present us with the plot but the various characters’ more or less independent psychological prisons, all products of the constraints of modern society. Rocco wants money. Marzelline wants sex, and Jaquino is, as could be expected, a rapist. Don Pizarro wants power. Leonore, determined and capable but denied a full life, struggles with literal ropes attached to the labyrinth in “Komm, Hoffnung.” In the Prisoners’ Chorus she puts pictures of Florestan’s face on the scattered prisoners, as if that would transform these momentarily free men into her husband and thus free herself. When some bits of the plot intrude into the sung texts it is as if they are fragments from some other world.

The first act exists entirely in this kind of timeless abstraction; in the second the labyrinth is lowered to a horizontal position and we disconcertingly enter the world of characters and events (we also acquire a number of hanging acrobats who descend from the flies, symbolizing floating freedom and such). What exactly is wrong with Florestan is unclear (perhaps mental illness, perhaps resigned into an exceptionally bad case of modernist alienation), but despite his vision of Leonore and attempts to climb out of the labyrinth, he is mentally elsewhere and scared of anyone who comes near him. Leonore dispatches Pizarro with both a bottle of water smashed over the head and acid thrown in his eyes.

The marital reunion begins euphorically, and Leonore ditches her man clothes for a dress and Florestan his asylum-like pajamas for a suit, but after “O namenlose Freude” they draw away from each other, Florestan unsure of leaving and Leonore not sure who this is that she has finally found. Then, where Mahler and Bernstein put Leonore No. 3, a string quartet descends from above and plays an excerpt from the slow movement of the Op. 132 string quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang (only the molto adagio, not the “feeling new strength“ section). It’s a moment of perfect peace and stillness, and the hanging musicians seem to represent the consolatory, freeing, yet abstract power of art (cue Beethoven biography reference, and the program includes the text of the Heiligenstadt Testament). And yet it is only a momentary respite.

The finale confused me a bit. Don Fernando arrives in the personage of the Joker from The Dark Knight (some other parts of this production kind of recall Inception–I suspect that Bieito is a big Christopher Nolan fan), a deus ex machina who enters from the audience. He proceeds to shoot Florestan. While he does not remain dead onstage, I think he actually does die. Because the utopia of the finale is a freedom that can’t exist (especially when you’re in a Calixto Bieito production), and considering Florestan’s mental state, he isn’t going to be able to piece his life together again in this world, wife or no wife. The only release for him is death. The rejoicing of the reunion continues in some other space. But what does this mean for Leonore?

This is my biggest problem with the production: the characters exist in such isolation from each other. I think it may be too abstract for me; I miss having a plot and real characters instead of symbols of a vague existential struggle, and it was only during the more concrete action of the second act where I was fascinated (as evidenced by my descriptions–I really thought the treatment of the reunion was brilliant). The first half of Fidelio is inevitably a dramaturgical challenge, but this solution seems weirdly lacking in ideas, almost incomplete. And I missed the good old struggle for justice, however naive it might be. I guess I’m sentimental.

But the best thing about this production is how unnaive and unsentimental it is, how it expresses the power and desire of Beethoven’s score without lapsing into cliché. As intendant Nikolaus Bachler said at the post-show discussion, “The curtain goes up and there’s ironing! Always ironing!” But beyond avoiding ritual staging, Bieito expresses the central theme of freedom while pretty much destroying any comfortable historicist paean. He avoids the ideological truisms of black and white truth and Western idealism that are attached to Beethoven and this work in favor of something more unique and intensely personal. (My problem with most Beethoven presentations is encapsulated in the subtitle of Edmund Morgan’s Beethoven biography, The Universal Composer, a phrase that presents so many cultural problems that I don’t even know where to start.  Bieito is an antidote to this.) It might be neither fuzzily inspirational nor coherent, but it has many other virtues, and its freshness and complexity are definitely some of them.

Musically, Daniele Gatti seemed like almost the right conductor for this production. He is willfully strange, with weirdly slow tempos and unexpected shifts, sometimes overwhelming the singers and sometimes lacking in coordination and rhythmic crispness (from the stage, this could have had to do with the production). But the static quality and unexpected twists seemed to fit with a production this unconventional, and his strange waves of music certainly sounded alien. The orchestra, particularly the strings, sounded very good, though occasionally a little bewildered.

Anja Kampe made a tremendously badass Leonore. Her large, rich voice sometimes struggled through Beethoven’s murderous vocal writing and Gatti’s slow tempo in the first half of her aria. But her singing was expressive and heroic throughout, and her giant high Bs ideal for this role. She acted with remarkable sincerity through the considerable demands of the production, and her naturalness and honesty provided most of its soul. Jonas Kaufmann navigated the terrors of the aria with great dramatic eloquence, including a daring crescendo at the beginning and a trumpeting ending with strong high notes. And his vaguely autistic, tic-ridden Florestan was a formidable piece of acting. But after the aria he sounded under the weather, and sometimes was drowned out in the ensembles. (This was his return to the production after several illness-related cancelations, and he coughed several times mid-aria. Hilariously, half the audience immediately broke out in sympathy coughs.) Laura Tatulescu and Jussi Mylls were animated as Marzelline and Jaquino, both singing with clarity through their considerable acrobatics. Wolfgang Koch made an oddly soft-grained Pizarro. Franz-Josef Selig was an excellently sung Rocco with robust, round tone. As usual in a Bieito production, the acting and commitment from the cast was across-the-board great.

I found parts of this production massively frustrating, but there is more of it that will stick with me.  And, as you can see by the amount of words it took me to explain my thoughts about it, it certainly gave me something to think about.  As much as I love the triumph of justice, it’s going to be a little tricky to go innocently back to the ironing after this.

All photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.
Trailer (3 minutes):

Documentary (10 minutes):

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  1. Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful review of production and performances. A confirmed Fidelio fan myself, I do love the triumph of justice, but am glad to see a production asking those questions of "How in the world does life go on after this? Can it?" Sigh. Lots to think about, for sure.

  2. Thanks. It's kind of a hedgehog production, it doesn't ever try to explain or stage everything and the whole thing goes back to one question, but it's a really really big one.

  3. I'm listening to this on the internets as I type and while you're review seems particularly thorough and illuminating in the abstract (to the extent the obscurities of the production allow for illumination) it might actually be better in the meticulous and dead on accurate actual description (of the aural proceedings generally – since that is what I have access to at the moment) the orchestra especially – much, much better than anything else I've read.

    You're linkage of the production to Gatti's conducting is particularly helpful. I don't especially like it and whatever one thinks of the production (I'm inclined to dislike but to be fair I haven't seen it and even you, having done so and thought about it quite a bit don't seem to have quite made up you mind) if it influenced Gatti to go in this direction and and thus distorted the musical performance in such a negative way it appears problematic in the extreme.

    In any case I'll be seeing (and in more relevant part hearing) Gatti conduct this in Zurich next month so I'll have a chance to see if he does something different in that, very different and much more straightforward production* (or perhaps his view might have been, at least for a time, distorted by this effort – we'll see).

    In any case, thanks for the great review. Also, if you have the time and/or inclination (and I'd tend to doubt it given you're blistering pace of late), It'd be cool if you took in the Salome at the WSO tomorrow. Its echt Viennese in its age and routine but I heard it with Camilla Nylund a couple of years ago and would be curious to get your opinion. I know you've been a a blistering

  4. Thanks a lot, Marcillac. Gatti is such an odd case, everyone seems to acknowledge that he's a great conductor but no one seems to actually like him. FWIW, I heard that by the performance I went to he was going a lot faster and doing a lot of other things differently than he had at the prima (I bet the tech people loved that!), and I think the broadcast was of the first performance? (I haven't heard it.)

    Yeah, I'm still kind of undecided about the whole thing. There was so much that was good in it but it left me a little cold for reasons I can't explain. Taking away Leonore's struggle for justice made me feel like a kid whose balloon has popped. But I still think there's something interesting about moving Beethoven from the universal to, in some way, the subjective.

    Can't go to Nylund Salome tomorrow, I'm going to Luisi and the Symphoniker with Brahms 4. She's singing it again in February and I have a friend who wants to go so I might catch it then.

  5. Hi,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I saw the live screening of this production last month and your write-up has really helped me digest it. You evidently absorbed a lot more of the subtleties of the production than I did and it now makes a lot more sense! I hope you don't mind but I've linked this to my blog because I definitely could not have written it any better!


  6. I just came across bits of this production of fidelio on you-tube and what I saw had a profound effect on me. It reminded me of a person I came across professionally, who had been tortured 10 years previously and it is an uncannily exact portrayal of most aspects of his situation. The person was suffering from what society calls "post-traumatic stress disorder" as well as a lot of physical problems from five years of physical and psychological torture. Although it was all in the past now, and he was free, he was living/reliving that exact same situation as it was in prison every day in his body and mind – he just couldn't help it – it was stuck in his body and mind physiologically and in his mental processes. a striking thing about him was that he was totally isolated and kept himself so, although you could see that he had been an ordinary sociable chap before his torture, comfortable in his family and in his immediate society and he didn't want to be isolated. Fear (the opposite of love, after all, physiologically and maybe in other ways) kept him isolated from everyone, and since coming to this country, he had moved five times from city to city. So I think the isolation you mention is fitting to this portrayal. I also thought that the portrait of Don Fernando felt to me like an accurate portrayal of how governments respond to people like the man I came across. I saw our health and mental health services totally fail him, it was like seeing a drowning man fished out of a river, and then thrown back in again. I felt that the government would want to get rid of him and people like him if they could – there was no help for him available in our society. I was told that many people in his situation actually commit suicide anyway. I am so thankful that I saw the truth of this presented on stage – at least someone is being honest about what happens in our society! Thanks for your review, I enjoyed it and shall visit frequently! regards, Lucy.

  7. I found this site by happenstance while procrastinating from marking final exams, and I must say your reviews are fantastic reading. I have seen only snippets of this production on youtube, but the reunion scene with the string quartet blew me away: it seems absolutely appropriate and profoundly moving. Your review helped me understand (and visualize) other parts of the production.