Fidelio, Opéra de Lyon, France – review

It could be the future. Until now digital technology and installation art have had little impact on operatic aesthetics, but American conceptual artist Gary Hill’s new Beethoven production is sure to set imaginations racing and create a demand for virtual reality on the international opera stage. Computer-generated visuals are expensive and of a technical complexity that dwarfs the art form’s core humanity. But they have the potential not just to ally opera with a whole new range of fertile minds in contemporary art, of whom Hill is a perfect example, but also to open opera to a wider audience.

Hill’s poetic mixtures of visuals and sound were first exhibited in France more than 20 years ago, making him an ideal target for a go-ahead company such as Lyon. He describes his Fidelio as a “media installation in a semi-staged environment”. This is not an interpretation in the traditional sense. A self-confessed opera virgin, Hill has simply listened to the music and used it as a trigger for visual impressions in his own aesthetic. As his touchstone, he uses Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson’s 1956 poem “Aniara”, about a spaceship that is accidentally ejected from the solar system and thrust into an existential struggle for survival.

You may wonder what “Aniara” has to do with Fidelio’s themes of tyranny and liberation. Well, like Beethoven’s setting, “Aniara” is a prison of sorts and planet Earth is similarly a ball of humanity hurtling towards extinction. But trying to intellectualise Hill’s concept is futile. Interpolating pseudo-philosophical quotes from “Aniara” appears to have been the only way he could engage with the opera. He turns the cast into futuristically-clad Thunderbirds characters on two-wheeled buggies, dwarfed by a succession of mesmerising abstract shapes and evolving lines, the novelty of which soon wears off. There is only one hint of colour, in the prisoners’ chorus.

I suspect Hill’s “installation” would make more sense in a Wagner opera – but it kept the Lyon audience happy and should entertain Edinburgh this summer when Opéra de Lyon brings Fidelio to the festival. The production, conducted by Kazushi Ono, is let down by mediocre singing. In the circumstances, maybe that doesn’t matter.

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