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REVIEW: Fidelio | Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne

Melbourne’s little-company-than-could presents a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s one and only opera. The production overcomes its challenges with sublime performances.

Roger Howell, Donna-Maree Dunlop and Jason Wasley in Fidelio | Athenaeum Theatre

If words persuade just one dear reader to see this show during its astonishingly short season this review will have been worth it. Beautiful performances of sublime art and music should be seen and heard and adulation given where it is due. This extraordinary performance directed by Hugh Halliday and conducted by David Kram, of an undoubted masterpiece, is not to be missed.

Let me declare my bias straight away: I love Beethoven, in particular the symphonies, and the thing that enraptured me tonight was the hard work done by David Kram tightening the orchestra who as individuals seemed to really delight in the music they played. But how could they not in the brilliant overture Leonore 3? The score was undoubtedly challenging and full marks must go Kram for pulling it off so beautifully.

Fidelio, an opera in two acts, sung by Melbourne Opera in accessible English with modernist set and costumes, is Beethoven’s only opera and tells how Leonore (the wonderful soprano Donna-Marie Dunlop), disguised as a prison guard named Fidelio, from the Italian fido for “faithful”, dramatically rescues her husband Florestan (the marvelous tenor Jason Wasley) from certain death in a political prison.

It seems a rather farcical story to start with — in that cross-dressing, love tangled, melodramatic way typical of most romantic opera of the period. In short, girl dresses up as boy to rescue boy, almost gets married off to another girl along the way, but finally she achieves her goal. The opening act set in the contemporary open office environment of the prison finds Marzelline (sung beautifully by soprano Fiona Jopson) and Jaquino (the impressive tenor Brenton Spiteri) jousting in sing-song comedy theatrics of the Twelfth Night kind. Well done to Halliday for bringing that light touch to the fore.

In opera, theatrical set pieces are always vehicles for the music, so when even the most far-fetched scenario can move to tears you know you are in the presence of genius composing and solid production. I am referring to the famous Prisoner’s Chorus ensemble piece in the first act sung in English as: “Oh to breath the air around me.” The power of this piece for its timeless and poignant beauty is something I will remember for a very long time. Beethoven composed his work during the destructive Napoleonic wars and the aftermath of the French Revolution was present in every European mind. We, of course, recall Iraq, Vietnam and the genocidal wars and Fascist and Communist concentration camps of more recent times.

The entire ensemble work of the production with the brilliant orchestral overtures redolent of Beethoven’s breakthrough symphonies Eroica Number 3 and Number 5 were the highlight of my evening. The second act was an emotional revelation with its stark atmospheric lighting and euphoric crowd scene climax. Fidelio pisses on Les Miserable at every level. That the production overcame the poor acoustics of the Athenaeum to resound to where I was sitting in the gods is maybe the biggest compliment I can make.

Fidelio is not often played in Australia or elsewhere for that matter. Why? It has the undeserved reputation for being “problematic” to perform and “difficult” for audiences. It is undoubtedly a technical challenge for both singers and orchestra, with complex overture arrangements and singing that places extra demand on event the most talented virtuoso. This reputation seems to have its genesis right from the start because it didn’t work in the way Beethoven original conceived it, so he chopped, changed and added parts several times with collaborators over a period of ten years before scoring a success with the public in 1814.

I left the Athenaeum feeling elated but also thinking about a few “what ifs?”. What if Beethoven had written more operas? This brilliant, sublime and moving piece is testament to what could have been. The excellent notes in the program describe the composers struggle with deafness and difficulty with dialogue. I know it is selfish but wish there had been more operas from him. The other questions are more tangible. What if the Melbourne Opera company received government funding to conduct more productions with better sets in larger venues and more acoustically sound venues? Melbourne Opera survives on the generosity of great philanthropists like Gary Morgan (who I saw in the bar after the show looking particular proud of the night’s success, as so he should).

This may be too much of an aside, but the wealth of our arts scene is in stark contrast with our mean lack of support. Melbournians take the brilliance of our artists for granted, and the continued dedication of those who perform for love rather than money. And are we just blasé (or is it too bleeding shy?) to get off our arses when a standing ovation is richly deserved? I directed theatre in the UK years ago and I know for a fact that tonight the cast of Fidelio would have received a standing ovation anywhere else important for the arts in the Anglo-sphere, Sydney, New York, and even London.

I want to let the exceptional leads Donna-Marie Dunlop and Jason Wasley know that I was one of the few on my feet shouting “bravo” and “brava”. It was well deserved and you were well supported by the amusing Steven Gallop as Rocco and full-voiced Roger Howell as the evil Governor Pizzaro, and how apt that an Australian audience showed its true conservative colours by playfully jeering the evil anti-monarchist jailer at the many curtain calls.

The details: Fidelio plays the Athenaeum Theatre on February 5, 8 and 10 — tickets via Ticketek. The show has one performance at Monash University’s Alexander Theatre on March 2 — tickets on the venue website.

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