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“Fidelio” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin: In a house of the dead

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What follows the dictatorship? If peace breaks out immediately, will people be able to cope with the new freedom? The question of nation building and the challenges for young democracies is virulent, whether in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain or in the current war and crisis regions of the world.

Director David Hermann presents them at the end of his new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with a relentlessness that divides the audience. Boos mixed with enthusiasm after the jubilee finale was anything but jubilant. No prisoners happily throwing off their chains, no Don Fernando, who as Deus ex machina Leonore promotes the liberation of her rebel husband Florestan and Don Pizarro opens the dungeon doors for all prisoners, but an enterprising minister in a blue suit – Thomas Lehman, he sees the point a bit like Olaf Scholz – who, together with bodyguards and entourage, tries to keep the unleashed people in check.

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The citizens who were released into the open – once again excellently disposed: the choir of the Deutsche Oper – sing their “Heil sei dem Tag, Heil sei der Kapitel” rather like a shrill beacon, with increasing anger. They push aggressively and accelerando to the ramp, while the governor and state prison warden Don Pizarro is unceremoniously buried in the grave that was actually dug for Florestan.

The unjust regime is followed by unrest, possibly civil war. David Hermann, who has previously staged Lachenmann’s “Girl with the Matches” and Janácek’s “The Makropulos Affair” in the house on Bismarckstraße, refuses the happy ending.

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The most recent renovation work on the Deutsche Oper has been completed, and the orchestra, conducted by its boss Donald Runnicles, sounds as if freshly cleaned from the renewed pit, in its clarity a sound that is almost turned inside out. The first bars of the overture already contain the whole story: an energetic, action-promising start, which is countered by pale horn chords. In the premiere, however, they slip badly, also in the recapitulation. Here the idea-dramatic revolutionary opera, there the anguish of the slaves: there is often a lack of balance this evening.

Which is also due to the overall unbalanced ensemble of singers. On the one hand Ingela Brimberg as the energetic Leonore, who is sometimes a little too excited with vibrato in the wide range of tones, the radiant soprano Sua Jo as Marzelline and Albert Pesendorfer, who is engaging in both singing and acting, as the fatherly Rocco struggling to retain his humanity. In his vacillation between obedience to the authorities and resistance, he becomes a figure of identification – the public’s sympathy is certain for him.

Because of the jubilee finale. Don Fernando can hardly keep the unleashed people in check.
© / Photo: IMAGO/MARTIN MÜLLER

On the other hand Robert Watson as the vocally pale, strained Florestan, whose great tenor aria “Gott! How dark here!” disappoints, even if he tries to put it on as the outcry of a torture victim who has gone mad from solitary confinement and exhaustion. Jordan Shanahan as Pizarro is also struggling.

Character drawing and group dynamics are nevertheless appealing, because the interventions in the plot – which are probably due to the boos for the directors – follow a coherent logic. Beethoven’s only opera, which he struggled with for over a decade and which combines elements of the Singspiel, classical number opera, melodrama, oratorio and symphony, is not an opera of freedom, but an opera about imprisonment, says David Hermann. Here everyone is unfree.

In fact, they are all subject to the hierarchical dungeon system as authoritarian characters. Even Leonore, one of the boldest women in operatic literature and a feminist avant la lettre, remains caught up in the constraints of her Fidelio disguise. She can empower herself with her hope aria in the first act, supported by the oboe. For her noble goal of freeing her beloved husband Florestan from his tomb, she literally walks over corpses: at Rocco’s behest, Leonore uses the gun and kills another prisoner.

And right at the beginning, Marzelline falls victim to Leonore’s camouflage as the male assistant of her jailer father, Rocco. She falls in love with this Fidelio, the brave Jacquino (Gideon Poppe) lies at her feet, but Leonore’s lie plunges her into misfortune. Singspiel, disguise comedy? nothing there During the final popular uprising, Marzelline is very alone, already left alone in the libretto.

The stage design: prison walls made of clay, a crypt as a mass grave

For the collective predicament, Johannes Schütz designed a gloomy stage setting between the Iron Curtain and the back wall, with prison walls made of clay, rusty ladders and a crypt in the middle. The second act takes place in this yawning abyss, a mass grave with the living dead. At first, Jacquino and Marzelline wash a corpse on a pedestal, later Pizarro will squeeze himself under the pedestal and cross his legs convulsively on a stool. Yet this brutal offender turns out to be a tortured creature.

The prisoners squatting against the wall also wear oversized death masks, and as soon as they step out into the sun at the end of the first act, they obediently return to their places. Schütz, who is also responsible for the costumes, puts the protagonists in leather gear and work clothes. Rocco’s orange overalls are reminiscent of Guantanamo – the only direct allusion to the political present.

Lack of freedom means loneliness, here everyone sings for themselves. Already the “I’m so wonderful” quartet in the first scene, the singers, the orchestra and Runnicles start less song-like cheerfully than as a pale web of lies – one would have wished for it to be quieter. Again and again the anxiety comes to light in the numerous ensemble songs, the timid groping towards the light, at the same time the secret personal agenda of the characters, their culpable entanglement.

The trios and quartets are among the most coherent moments of the production, as an expression of the futile longing for a community of the free. Even in their duet “Oh namenlose Freude” Leonore and Florestan hyperventilate above all, as a couple stammers, clinging to each other. The utopia of the free man remains a pious wish.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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