Beethoven’s Fidelio is one of my favourite operas, even a touchstone, but all my most moving experiences of it for a very long time past have been on records, and records of a certain age. The time when we could take its message of heroic hope at its face value seems to have passed, anyway for contemporary directors.
My hopes for a concert performance, with no intrusive directorial questioning of the opera’s values, etc., opening the Great Performers series at the Barbican were high, especially since Sir Charles Mackerras is celebrating his 80th birthday on top form, and always conducts operas with fresh vitality. But for the first part of the evening I was in low spirits. Vitality was there in plenty, but not much else, and it somehow failed to communicate itself to the audience, despite committed singing and gesturing from a good cast, and extraordinarily fine playing by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, whose Chorus sounded in far too rude health for the prisoners’ chorus to be the harrowing experience that it should be, must be if we are to get to the heart of this desperate and exalted opera.
I have a simple test for an adequate performance of Fidelio — and it is one of those works of which there are great performances and then the rest: a merely good account of it serves to stress its absurdities and unevennesses, without compensating with its marvellous stretches, which seem to be just marooned if the whole thing hasn’t taken off. My test is whether it leaves you feeling that you must go out and do an heroic deed yourself, or at least try to make the world a better place with some decisive action.