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Melbourne Opera: Fidelio

by Heather Leviston

The world will be resounding to the music of Beethoven this year as we celebrate his 250th anniversary of his birth; Melbourne Opera has launched the major local celebrations with his operatic masterpiece, Fidelio.

Being his only opera, it is sure to attract more performances this year than at any other time since its final version was first performed in 1814. It is not only the significance of the year that makes Fidelio a popular choice. The uplifting story of love, courage, idealism and endurance, brought to glorious life by some of the most sublime music ever written, makes it irresistible. And it is relatively short, even with the welcome inclusion of the Leonore No. 3 overture before the final scene.

This is the second time Melbourne Opera have mounted Hugh Halliday’s production that takes us from its original late 18th century setting to a more contemporary one. That this conception works as well as it does emphasises the alarming relevance of the basic story: a whistleblower is held as a political prisoner by the man he has tried to expose while his wife does everything in her power to find and protect him. Although there is an entirely different cast from the 2013 production, the modest sets and most of the action remain. There was still an awkward shuffling of rocks attached to the “digging” of Florestan’s grave, but the poignancy of Leonore helping to prepare her husband’s grave still retained its inherent emotional drama. Being a Singspiel with many passages of spoken dialogue, what could have been some jarring mismatches between what is heard and what is seen were avoided by some judicious editing. As the jailer Rocco, Adrian Tamburini certainly didn’t look as though he was allowing Leonore to help him because he was old and decrepit. Nor did he sound in any way diminished. Tamburini is a bass baritone of distinction with a fine voice and acting skills to match. Despite being different from the customary characterisation, he was entirely convincing.

Rebecca Rashleigh had an easy task convincing us that she was Rocco’s charming, but rather naïve, daughter in love with “Fidelio”. She was a total delight – and it was all so natural. Her voice and manner have great sweetness and clarity, that immediately established this production as one that is worth going out of your way to hear. Her opening aria was a joy and she complemented Louis Hurley’s Jaquino with spirited energy. As the nerdy looking bespectacled assistant to Rocco and lovelorn suitor Hurley made a commendable contribution. The famous Act 1 “Canon” quartet Mir ist so wunderbar (To me it is so wonderful) was “wunderbar” indeed and enough to make you want to hear it again … and again.

Central to this quartet is Leonore. In the title role of the faithful woman willing to sacrifice her life to defend her husband, New Zealand lyric soprano Kirstin Sharpin brought full, steady tone and dramatic involvement. She sang Leonore’s taxing aria Abscheulicher! (Monster!) with expressive intensity as she railed against the murderous prisoner’s governor, Don Pizarro, and appealed to Hope to strengthen her. Leonore is a substantial role that requires considerable stamina, which Sharpin possesses to a remarkable degree. There was no sense of strain towards the end of the evening; the moment when she revealed her identity and interposed herself between her husband and Pizarro’s knife with Tot’ erst sein Weib! (First kill his wife!) I could quite literally feel my hair standing on end. Sharpin’s voice may be young and fresh and lacking the dramatic soprano weight that has come to be expected for this role, but her voice has a spacious resonance and lustre that promises a significant career. Along with an equally impassioned Bradley Daley, she added impressive power to the conclusion of this heroic tale.

During an interview with Glenn Winslade as he prepared the role of Florestan for Opera Australia’s 2002 production of a Fidelio starring Lisa Gasteen, he recalled the renowned Australian tenor Ronald Dowd introducing a master class at the Sydney Conservatorium during his student days. “It consisted of him walking up to the piano, playing a G and singing, ‘Gott!’ and saying, ‘And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the most difficult note in all opera’. That was it.” I’m happy to report that Bradley Daley successfully met the challenge. Florestan makes his first appearance at the beginning of Act 2 and this is the very first note he sings. He has to persuade the audience that a man on the point of dying from thirst, hunger and two years chained in the dank dungeon of a Spanish prison is capable of Heldentenor vocal glory – albeit Beethoven does help an audience suspend disbelief by providing a context of delirium. Daley’s somewhat compressed Heldentenor vocal production does not prevent him from producing a free, truly thrilling ring to his top notes.

As his archenemy, Warwick Fyfe was a particularly aggressive Pizarro. There was a tendency to shout rather than snarl in his first aria but he managed to inject some nuance into his vocal characterisation later. His success as a nasty piece of work could be heard in the lusty but good-natured booing (amongst the cheers) that greeted him as he took his curtain call. He reciprocated with a bow facing away from the audience.

Roger Howell lent gravitas to the relatively small but important role of the Minister of State Don Fernando while Michael Dimovski (there’s a talent to watch), Darcy Carroll, David Lawson-Smith and Mark Caile were respectively an effective pair of prisoners and guards.

Under the baton of the vastly experienced and knowledgeable Maestro Anthony Negus, the orchestra played with increasing assurance. Special mention has to go to the brass, especially the horn players, whose expertise resulted in a successful navigation of some treacherously exposed passages in the overture. Beethoven wrote some exquisite passages for solo oboe in Florestan’s aria to which, along with the flute in Marzelline’s aria and the final scene, the principal oboe did moving justice.

The men’s chorus could have been a little better blended at times and more precise with regard to German accent, but was generally stirring and full-bodied in tone. As for the women – it is a wonder they weren’t able to break down the prison walls with the splendour of their singing as they held photos of their “disappeared” ones aloft. The final energetic rejoicing as justice is seen to be done was exhilarating.

In supporting young singers Melbourne Opera has shown us just how valuable this organisation is to the cultural life of Melbourne. It is heartening to see that audiences recognise this, even if unaccountably blinkered government finance departments do not, and are coming in droves to see these outstanding productions.

Image supplied by Melbourne Opera

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Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of Fidelio at the Athenaeum Theatre on February 5, 2020.

Further performances: Athenaeum Theatre February 11and 13 at 7.30pm and Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo February 23, 4pm.

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