Fidelio, Opera North, Leeds Town Hall, review: a high-octane blast of pure heroism

·3 min read
Matthew Stiff as Don Fernando, narrating, in Opera North's production of Fidelio - Richard H Smith
Matthew Stiff as Don Fernando, narrating, in Opera North's production of Fidelio - Richard H Smith

For the first time in 451 days, Opera North did what it had been longing to do for so many months: perform for a live audience. Admittedly, that audience was small and socially-distanced, and the performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio was straitened. It was given in concert form, with just a touch of dramatic interaction, in the stuccoed glory of Leeds Town Hall (not the Grand Theatre). The orchestra was reduced to 31 members and the chorus to 24.

But in terms of impact, this production of Beethoven’s tale of the heroic Leonore, who disguises herself as “Fidelio” to break her husband Florestan out of the sadistic Pizarro’s prison, was as huge and inspiring as any I can remember. It rushed by at thrilling speed. Short linking texts helped to fill in the story, in place of the wordy spoken dialogue of the original work, and in a brilliantly effective stroke, these texts were given in the form of a dry report written after the event by Don Fernando, the minister who turns up to order the prison doors opened, and thwart Pizarro, right in the nick of time.

That headlong rush was magnified by the ardent, energised conducting of Paul Daniel. The sheer volume of sound was almost painful, especially at the deliriously joyful final scene in which the prisoners have been released. At that point, chorus and orchestra and soloists were all wrapped in a blaze of light; before then, when the outcome had been uncertain and evil had seemed in the ascendant, everything had been in shadow, with the orchestra placed towards the back. In the scene in which the prisoners are given an all-too-short taste of daylight and fresh air, the Opera North chorus (in terrific voice) emerged unexpectedly from high up on the raked chorus seats.

This production was a reminder of how our imagination can build an entire world with almost nothing. One felt the gloom of the dungeon where Florestan is imprisoned, and when the trumpets sounded off-stage, signalling the arrival of Don Fernando, the moment was as magical as ever. All this was a tribute to the performers, too: they were uniformly strong. Flur Wyn played Marzelline, daughter of the prison warden Rocco, and Oliver Johnson her paramour (and his assistant) Jaquino; their comic interactions were touching, rather than, as can often be the case, annoyingly twee. Rachel Nicholls rose wonderfully to the challenge of impersonating Leonore, the most heroic female character in opera, and Toby Spence as Florestan sang the work’s most moving aria with true nobility. Robert Hayward as Pizarro, meanwhile, was moral corruption personified.

The most interesting performer on stage, however, was Brindley Sherratt. He made Rocco’s eagerness to marry his daughter into money seem simply human, rather than small-minded, and his moral awakening in the dungeon scene was the most moving part of the evening. Overall, this performance was a triumph, and it sparked a subversive thought: perhaps this stripped-down, blazingly intense Fidelio is how Beethoven’s work should always be.

Further performances in Leeds, Salford and Nottingham until June 19. Info: operanorth.co.uk