This week sees a landmark in my long walk on this weird and mostly wonderful world, although weird has the upper hand at the moment.
I am about to receive my first pension cheque, most of which I have already spent. I mention this not for sympathy or gasps of amazement, but that I remain constantly astonished by the progress in modern technology. For the most part it’s one big episode of Star Trek to me. The first time I saw a mobile telephone it was Kirk asking to be beamed up. Similarly, my first glimpse of a personal computer was as he recorded his captain’s log (I never did work out the star dates). So it was with the same sense of awe that I boldly logged on to the Opera North streaming site to watch a live performance of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.
It was my first streaming and, I hope, not my last. But it was Beethoven’s first and only opera. There are some ideas as to why this might be. My own personal theory was developed after seeing a truly awful performance in 1984 where the soprano singing the part of Fidelio/Leonora collapsed on stage after the interval with gastroenteritis. Apart from the pain the poor singer was experiencing as I clapped thinking it was part of the performance, it meant that the company didn’t have to refund the ticket money. And so I developed an uneasy distrust of Beethoven, as well as figuring that the composer thought it was so bad that he didn’t write another. It turns out that he had such difficulty in writing and revising it, he vowed never to repeat the experience. As he wrote to a friend: “I assure you that this opera will win me a martyr’s crown.”
I hoped I would never have to sit through it ever again but, in my job as an opera correspondent, the inevitable happened. One of Opera North’s first online live productions was my operatic nemesis, Fidelio. Sitting in my kitchen armed only with an iPad, a pair of Marshall headphones and a strong G&T, I fully expected an excruciating evening of Beethoven. Streamed from the magnificent interior of Leeds Town Hall, the opera was a concert staging where the singers and orchestra are on stage with no scenery. It’s a form I like as the sound of the performers surfs on the power of the music rather that fighting against an orchestra in the pit. The acting is also minimal allowing me to focus on the voices. And as I’m used to sitting in the audience a fair distance from the stage, I was surprised by the close-ups of the singers. It was a revelation and a moving performance by all involved.
The story concerns Leonora (Rachel Nicholls), wife of prisoner Florestan (Toby Spence), who poses as male jailer Fidelio. The head jailer Rocco (Brinkley Sherratt) is so impressed with Fidelio that he seeks to promote him and give him the hand of his daughter, Marzelline (Fflur Wyn), who is loved by Jacquino (Oliver Johnston). The evil minister of Justice, Don Pizarro (Robert Hayward), seeks to have Florestan murdered by the squeamish Rocco who enlists the help of Fidelio. Fidelio/Leonora exposes the dastardly plot and saves the life of her beloved husband, and spares the blushes of Marzelline.
Watching online allowed me to see the power, emotion and talent of all the performers up close as well as the skill of the conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, and the paired down orchestra of Opera North. The narrative was held together by Don Fernando (Matthew Stiff) who doubled as the narrator. I would certainly like to hear more of his voice.
While I cannot wait for the return of live opera, this production has helped me to overcome my fear of Trekkie technology and my misguided misconceptions about Beethoven and Fidelio. For that I am, as always, indebted to the wondrous Opera North.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
Images by Richard H Smith. Courtesy of Opera North.