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Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Beethoven and Sonnleitner, after Bouilly

Opera North, The Lowry Salford

15 June 2021, 1 hour 45 minutes

Rachel Nicholls as Leonore in Opera North’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. All pics: Richard H Smith

Opera North’s return to live performance at The Lowry received the same kind of reception that the Hallé’s to the Bridgewater Hall did almost a fortnight ago: my goodness, we’re glad to see and hear live music in our community again.

It was a one-nighter only, an in-concert presentation with a small and socially distanced, mask-wearing audience, of course, no set beyond a nicely lit backdrop colonnade of pillars effect, with fiery light glowing between them, and no interval. The cast were in a line at the front of the stage, with the orchestra behind, and had to cope with minimal acting – even when singing about being in each other’s arms when obviously they couldn’t be.

The only other thing in the visit is a so-called Night at the Opera of concertised excerpts, which hardly counts in my book. It’s funny how marketers reach for that title when what they have to offer is specifically not a night at an opera, but a set of songs from the shows.

But at least it made some amends for the lost great Beethoven celebration of 2020. Opera North did get this version of Fidelio out in December by filming it in Leeds Town Hall and streaming, and the cast in Salford was exactly the same, the major change being that the conductor this time was Paul Daniel, not Mark Wigglesworth.

The opera is presented in the version edited by David Pountney, where all the spoken dialogue is replaced by a narration device: the actor-singer who plays Don Fernando (Matthew Stiff), and normally only appears at the end – to save the hero and heroine and sort everything out – is on stage the whole time, presenting his report of the story for a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission".

It actually works better this way than in the original, which is a Singspiel with indifferent narrative concepts and verbal writing and can often seem in the opening scenes as if it’s going to be in similar vein to parts of The Magic Flute. Pountney’s text was also used in the Hallé concert performance of Act Two under Sir Mark Elder in February 2020, in the Bridgewater Hall – with two of the same cast.

All the virtues of the previous Opera North cast were present in this live performance, and more — especially Rachel Nicholls as Leonore, the heroine who enters a prison disguised as a boy to seek out her kidnapped and starving husband, Florestan. (It’s not exactly an everyday credible narrative, but the important thing is how Beethoven’s music lifts it).

Brindley Sherratt as Rocco, the head warder, has nice touches of a comic Everyman-in-any-humble-job about him. His daughter Marzelline (Fflur Wyn) falls for the supposed young "Fidelio", who is really Leonore, somewhat upsetting her real aspiring suitor, Jaquino (Oliver Johnston).

The other two key roles are Don Pizarro, an out-and-out villain who is the reason for Florestan’s disappearance and who wants him murdered before help can arrive – wonderfully acted here by Robert Hayward, who fixed the audience with an evil scowl from the moment he walked on stage and never let up on the nastiness; and of course Florestan himself (Toby Spence), who has to languish unseen until Act Two, but makes up for it with some glorious proto-Heldentenor-style singing.

The orchestra was down to single (hardworking!) woodwind, two horns, two trumpets, no trombones, in a score reduction by Francis Griffin. The chorus on stage was pretty generous for a socially-distanced ensemble these days.

It was good to see Paul Daniel, one of their great former music directors, back on the Opera North podium. His sense of rhythmic propulsion was as enlivening as ever, and he went for some effects (such as the near-inaudible introduction to the Prisoners’ Chorus – itself magnificently sung by the Opera North men) that were highly daring and not always rewarded by the purity of wind intonation that this adaptation of the scoring absolutely requires.

Vocal highlights included Rachel Nicholls’ Abscheulicher! and Komm Hoffnung, as you might expect – fine though the other voices are, hers has a mesmerising extra quality to it – and of course O namenlose Freude with Toby Spence, and the final quintet, where each of Fflur Wyn, Oliver Johnston, Brindley Sherratt and the two just named show their all strengths and characterisation qualities at the same time.


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