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Almost 200 years after its premiere, Beethoven’s opera seems as painfully relevant as ever. Deborah Warner’s 2001 production for Glyndebourne came too soon to transport this drama of prisoners held without trial to Guantánamo Bay, but it is still set in the present. Costumes and surroundings are unspecific enough to suggest that the events could be happening anywhere, but they are certainly happening now.
Life in this prison, with its barred cages and overhead walkways, is oppressive for everybody. Warner’s production turns up the intensity from the beginning, playing up the sexual frustrations in the sub-plot to breaking point. Unfortunately, the story that really matters, of Florestan’s wrongful imprisonment and attempted murder, comes across as less momentous than usual.
The essence of the drama is bottled up almost wholly in the passionate portrayal of Anja Kampe as Leonore. There are a few wild sounds, but everything she does is charged with emotional commitment. Her Florestan, Torsten Kerl, is a bit of a lump by comparison, and although the evil prison governor probably would be a smarmy civil servant today, Peter Coleman-Wright’s sturdily sung Don Pizarro is unable to make much of the character. It is Rocco who comes across as a more important player here, thanks to Brindley Sherratt’s compelling portrayal of a man caught between good and evil. Lisa Milne’s strong-willed Marzelline would soon turn Andrew Kennedy’s Jaquino into a hen-pecked husband, while Henry Waddington’s under-sung Don Fernando was too mild a messenger of salvation.
What tipped the balance was Mark Elder’s determined conducting, together with the high quality of playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra – a reminder that, whatever is happening on stage, it is Beethoven’s music that makes his message as inspirational as ever. ★★★★☆
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