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Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Bold new ‘Fidelio’ soars

29 February 2020

Rosalind Appleby finds the contemporary themes of Alison Croggon’s new libretto sit comfortably in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.

Review: Perth Festival, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Opera, Fidelio ·
Perth Concert Hall, 28 February 2020 ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·

Fidelio is the ultimate feminist rescue opera. It is also Beethoven’s most dramatic expression of his hatred of tyranny and advocacy of liberty, couched within a French Revolution story.

This year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and, in celebration, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra performed Fidelio as part of the Perth Festival. With its quasi-oratorio dimensions, it’s a good choice for a concert performance – its strength is the contemplation of ideas rather than the action itself.

But what does a late 18th century tale of a woman who dresses as a man and frees her incarcerated husband have to offer an Australian audience?

In this performance, quite a lot, thanks to WASO’s principal conductor and artistic adviser, Asher Fisch, who commissioned poet and playwright Alison Croggon to write a new text for the opera. Her words, narrated by actor Eryn Jean Norvill, replaced the spoken dialogue in Sonnleithner’s libretto (which one commentator said read “about as well as a telephone directory”) with an updated contemporary framework.

Croggon and Norvill were joined by director Clare Watson (Black Swan State Theatre Company); a trio of women bringing us Leonora’s story of bravery and hope.

Fisch gathered an international cast, led by German soprano Christiane Libor as Leonora, plus the forces of the West Australian Opera Chorus. His plan, building on the success of Tristan und Isolde in 2018, is to program a concert performance of an opera every year. Judging by the full house at the Perth Concert Hall for Fidelio, audiences welcome the idea.

WA Symphony Orchestra principal conductor Asher Fisch. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

Beethoven sits squarely within the core German Romantic repertoire upon which Fisch has been building WASO’s sound and style. So it was disappointing to hear the lack of cohesion in the overture. It wasn’t until the overture was almost over that pitch issues in the wind and scrappy entries were resolved.

In fact, the entire first act felt unsettled – partly the stop-start nature of Beethoven’s dramaturgy, and also the sense that Fisch was cueing and adjusting tempos as though still in rehearsal.

Libor came to the rescue as Fidelio/Leonora in more ways than one, unswerving in both her vocal delivery and her commitment to rescuing her husband. In the aria “Abscheulicher!”, with its heroic horn writing lifted straight from the “Eroica” Symphony, her velvety soprano was compelling as she moved between haughty Wagnerian grandeur to delicate moments of glimmering hope.

Jonathan Lemalu’s bass voice was darkly sweet as Rocco, pained with compassion for the prisoners he was guarding. Felicitas Fuchs’ bright soprano brought sparkle to the lovesick Marzelline, Andrew Goodwin was excellent as her jilted lover, Jaquino, and Warwick Fyfe was all jabs and snarls as Don Pizarro, the tyrant.

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Croggon’s slant on Beethoven’s themes highlighted topics such as the illegal detention of prisoners and heeding women when they say no. One section felt like a poetic montage on freedom: a child who had been beaten for speaking their own language hearing stories of their country for the first time; a woman walking out of a house of bruises, and a garden. Norvill’s narration had a compelling mix of aplomb and youthful passion.

And then, in Act Two, the momentum of the orchestra and singers aligned as Beethoven’s artistic celebration of freedom reached its zenith. Tomislav Mužek as Florestan delivered an outstanding “In des Lebens”, his honeyed tenor rising from the exquisitely soft orchestral introduction and building to ringing fervour.

Fisch conjured weighty darkness from the low strings and contrabassoon as Fidelio and Rocco descended into the dungeon to find Florestan. All restraint was thrown aside for Beethoven’s Sturm und Drang scene, which erupted with heaving orchestral explosions: the archetypal depiction of tyrannical violence.

Adrian Tamburini’s clarion bass was all graciousness as the venerable Don Fernando, arriving just in time to interrupt Don Pizarro’s attempted murder.

Florestan and Leonora are reunited in the joyful finale of Fidelio. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

And finally to Beethoven’s joyful finale, foreshadowing the Ninth Symphony and delivered with thrilling unanimity as the chorus and orchestra resounded in a celebration of freedom, with soloists soaring over the top.

The German operatic conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, once said of Fidelio: “It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ [Beethoven] makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. The sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’ … this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.”

And so it did, brought close to home thanks to the collaborative efforts of state arts organisations and the words of Alison Croggon. A fitting work for the last weekend of the Perth Festival, drawing to a conclusion its thematic celebration of our time and place.

Pictured top L-R: German soprano Christiane Libor, as Leonora/Fidelio and Felicitas Fuchs as Marzelline in ‘Fidelio’. Photo Rebecca Mansell

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Rosalind Appleby

Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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