Until the last 20 minutes, this Fidelio is wearingly uneventful. Then Calixto Bieito, enfant terrible of Spanish opera directors, plays his joker: Don Fernando, the government minister, comes on as a card-playing roué, dressed to the nines in Rococo frills, whips out a revolver and shoots the newly freed Florestan at his moment of triumph.
Bieito’s intention was apparently to overturn conventional ideas about Fidelio and he succeeds here, if nowhere else. However, given that the production began life in Munich in 2010, and the amount of advance publicity this London transfer has received, perhaps the audience was not so surprised at these upheavals as it might have been.
The evening opens unpromisingly with Leonore speaking a monologue (only half of it audible) before the overture. Then the lights come on to reveal a huge climbing frame, doubling as prison cells, over which the singers have to clamber – hardly a challenging premise these days, though there is a four-page explanation in the programme of its symbolic meaning. Bieito has cut most of the clunky, original dialogue, but the short bits of soul-searching put in its place are, if anything, worse. After Florestan is freed, a string quartet floats down in cages from the ceiling to play some late Beethoven – just the moment when the opera does not need an interruption, though the Heath Quartet plays so beautifully that one eventually gives in and enjoys the balm of the music.
It is a good thing the musical performance reasserts Beethoven’s original values so strongly. Casting the lead roles has never been easy at English National Opera, but Emma Bell is a wholehearted, lyrical Leonore, a touch soft-grained in the middle of the voice, and Stuart Skelton a vocally fearless Florestan of international standard. There is a strong Rocco from James Creswell. Sarah Tynan and Adrian Dwyer match their climbing skills to their singing as Marzelline and Jaquino. Philip Horst is a less-than-fearsome Pizarro, Roland Wood a vocally wobbly Don Fernando.
It is down in the orchestra pit that this production really finds its saviour. Edward Gardner has done nothing better at ENO, getting rich, wraparound sound in the Coliseum’s tricky acoustic and firing every phrase of the opera into life. Without him, this could be a fairly deathly evening.