Silly Beethoven Gets Butchered by Opera Nut: Review

'Fidelio'
The Heath String Quartet, suspended in cages above Emma Bell in "Fidelio" by Beethoven. The quartet plays an abbreviated version of the slow movement of Beethoven's Op. 132 quartet at a late point in the opera. Photographer: Tristram Kenton/English National Opera via Bloomberg

Sept. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Singers have become lab rats for directors.

That’s the impression given by Calixto Bieito’s amusingly awful new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at English National Opera. He sets the piece in a vertical, neon-lit maze created from scaffolding and platforms. The singers wriggle themselves up and down the maze through gaps, just like mice.

A program note helpfully explains that it’s a “metaphor for the characters’ psychological struggle.” Considering there’s zero psychology on display, that’s a bit hopeful.

The decontextualized protagonists arrive in contemporary dress, emote without any ostensible cause, and then hang around in a corner of the maze.

The opera is usually about a plucky woman who dresses as a man to rescue her unjustly incarcerated husband from prison. Foiling attempts to follow the plot, here the libretto’s dialogue is cut and replaced with obfuscating scraps of poetry.

The score is chopped up too, and a butchered movement of Beethoven’s string quartet Op. 132 is performed by an ensemble hanging in cages above the set. (Program note: “It’s a validation of culture’s role to inspire and console.” Who’d have guessed?)

Giggling Psychopath

The noble deus-ex-machina figure of Don Fernando is presented as a giggling 18th-century psychopath who shoots the hero Florestan instead of welcoming him.

Yes, we get the irony. Redemption is an illusion, freedom a lie, and Beethoven’s belief in humanity was wrong, wrong, wrong. Thanks for those amazingly fresh insights, Calixto.

In an otherwise patchy cast, Stuart Skelton sings Florestan beautifully and with untiring power. Emma Bell makes a good Leonore, even if her lower notes lack oomph. Edward Gardner conducts crisply and cleanly.

It doesn’t help. If anything, it makes the tired old cliches on stage seem all the mouldier. Rating: *

Huge Triumph

It’s a million emotional miles away from the Royal Opera’s revival of Richard Strauss’s “Elektra,” starring sensational American soprano Christine Goerke.

Her voice is excitingly huge and lustrous, and her portrayal of Elektra’s bloodthirsty monomania -- she wants her mother killed in revenge for the death of her father -- is scalp-prickling.

Director Charles Edwards sets the action in a chilling world of crumbling Art Nouveau decadence, Andris Nelsons conducts with incandescent power, and the cast is uniformly superb. Not a cliche in sight. Rating: *****

There’s another excellent performance at the Duchess Theatre: Henry Goodman in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.”

The 1941 piece, about Chicago mobsters, is a farcical satire on the rise of Hitler. Goodman has a ball with the role of Arturo, and shows him developing from a weasely hoodlum with a squeaky Brooklyn accent into a suave-tongued monster in a top hat and tails.

He’s plausible, amusing, and terrifying at the same time, and he’s backed up by tight, detailed work from the rest of the cast and a fine period-costume production from Jonathan Church.

The play itself becomes preachy, as you might expect from a doctrinaire Marxist author who kept a nice Swiss bank account. That said, it could hardly be better done, and Goodman is awe-inspiring. Rating: ***1/2

“Fidelio” is in repertoire at English National Opera. http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300

“Elektra” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000

“The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” is at the Duchess Theatre. http://www.nimaxtheatres.com or +44-844-412-4659

What the Stars Mean:
 *****      Exceptional
 ****       Excellent
 ***        Good
 **         So-so
 *          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on rock CDs and John Mariani on wine.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.