Fidelio: A Critic’s Disappointment.


At the outset I’ve got to say that the performance of the opera Fidelio by Beethoven by the Welsh National Opera at the Hippodrome Theatre Birmingham on 12/11/10 was a disappointment for me.

The Music and Story of Fidelio

This despite the inspirational nature of the music as a rousing, triumphant affirmation of the belief that the most important human qualities – love, courage and kindness – can exist in even the most inhuman of conditions.

Fidelio is a story about a woman who disguises herself as a man working in a prison in order to save her husband who is languishing there through no fault of his own.

There were both tender intimate scenes and highly charged choruses. However, the emotional impact of the performance on me was lacking. The singing was first class and the soloists in particular deserve admiration given the great vocal skill and endurance demanded of them by the score.  But to my mind the acting of the performers seemed wooden. What little movement on the stage seemed to happen in slow motion.

I hadn’t previously seen Fidelio or even heard any of its music. All I knew was that it was my late father’s favourite perhaps because he was a Beethoven fan – as in fact am I. And so I don’t know whom to blame. Was it the artistic director in the way the performance was directed? Or was it the composer because of something flawed in the opera itself?

The Composer of Fidelio

Beethoven usually reveals a profound depth of humanity in his music and listening again today at home to the ‘Prisoners’ chorus and the scene in which the rescue takes place, I am really uplifted and drawn to this composition. This is the Beethoven I love.  Nevertheless, unlike the work of a theatrical composer such as Hector Berlioz, I suspect his compositions are just not dramatic and visually engaging enough for a modern audience especially these days brought up on later Italian opera and American musicals.

Main Criticism of the Production of Fidelio

My main criticism possibly will sound fatuous and even sexist. Someone accurately sung the lead role of Leonore. However, she failed to inspire my sense of the feminine. Isn’t Fidelio supposed to be a romantic tale about a wife who risks her own life to save her husband from death? But as my mother commented afterwards, it was a pity she didn’t wear a ‘frilly frock’ during the last scene. Her manly attire – so necessary for her role of male disguise – didn’t do her portly figure any favours. As us overweight individuals probably know only to well, visual effect is important when one is on public view.

Worldly Mind and Higher Ideals

During his lifetime Beethoven suffered worsening hearing and perhaps became deaf to the clamour of the world and the world of appearances. The dramatic appeal of the theatre demands that the composer gives attention to our natural involvement in what happens on stage. Beethoven had the the heights of musical inspiration. Yet the worldly mind of the audience is as important to them as any higher ideals. What they see with their eyes and hear with their ears is as relevant as their higher perception. If played by an orchestra that is under-rehearsed or using poorly tuned instruments, music will not be readily appreciated – not that these were true at the performance I was at.

It has been thought by some that spiritual life requires them to renounce the world. But ignore the bodily senses at your peril if you want to communicate your artistic inspiration. The same applies to all walks of life – not just the artistic one. How business people market products is crucial to sales. How we each present ourselves to prospective employers, strangers at social gatherings, and even our own loved ones is important in developing relationships.

The longstanding dichotomy between idealism and materialism comes to mind. Neither seems a correct view of what can be good about opera. Musical ideas alone not backed up by the things of the senses don’t work. Neither do attention getting sounds and spectacle endure without any deeper ideals. The audience needs both musical ideas and corresponding things on a material plane.

Correspondence between the outer and the inner

This notion of correspondence is central to holism. Musical ideas, and in particular musical ideals, endure and are part of the reality of what Swedenborg called the ‘spiritual world’. But material things on the plane of our senses are also real as the Aristotelians thought.   But the two do need to correspond to produce a memorable occasion.

When they don’t, poor stage directions or dramatic discontinuity will fail to capture the drama. One example is when a director poorly casts stage performers. The roles will lack credibility.

One task of life is therefore to integrate the outer and the inner, the worldly with the spiritual,

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

If you like this, you may also like:

Spiritual questions & answers about the arts

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Effect of music on us – Why so big?


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