Feeling bereft after the series finale of prison drama Orange Is The New Black? BOZAR sends you back behind bars with not one but TWO productions of Beethoven’s beloved opera Fidelio: one with one of the biggest opera stars in the world, the other with… puppets.
It is a story of the fight for freedom against political oppression – a theme dear to Ludwig van B’s heart. It was also a problematic theme, since Vienna was being occupied by the French army, whose officers filled the opera house. Just like in time his Ode an die Freude became a political anthem, Fidelio has often been strategically performed as a statement; it is no coincidence that it was the first opera to be performed in Berlin after the Second World War.
The opera is also the archetypical story of the hero who has to rescue a damsel in distress, held captive by an evil man. This time the gender roles have been reversed, and it is Leonore who has to save her husband Florestan, locked away for his political beliefs by the wicked Pizzaro. She has to disguise as a man (under the name Fidelio) to fulfil her dangerous mission, but that hasn’t stopped many from hailing Beethoven as a proto-feminist. It certainly means there is a fantastic (and extremely demanding) leading part for the soprano, sung at BOZAR this February by none other than Nina Stemme, maybe the most celebrated soprano of our times.
Fidelio is undoubtedly Beethoven’s most popular opera (duh, it’s the only one he wrote!) but it definitely had a rocky road to global success. Work on the opera started in 1803, but it went through several different versions (with another title, Leonore), had some near disastrous performances (the musicians playing horrible out of tune didn't help - nor did the fact that half of the audience spoke French and didn't understand a word of the German text) and finally landed on its feet in 1814. The young Schubert attended the premiere of this definitive version, even though he had to sell some schoolbooks to buy a ticket. The traumatic genesis of Fidelio led Beethoven to declare that:
“Of all my children, this is the one that caused me the worst birth pangs,
the one that brought me the most sorrow and for that reason,
it is the one most dear to me.”
BOZAR is not an opera house, and the two versions of Fidelio this season will be radically different. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the divine Nina Stemme bring a semi-staged version, with revised dialogues (Beethoven’s opera has spoken dialogues in between the musical numbers) from the point of view of Joaquino, one of the minor characters. Before that, the renowned Salzburger Marionettentheater tell their version using… puppets. This might seem weird, but if you have seen their version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Mozart’s Magic Flute you know that this will be pretty unmissable. Stage director Thomas Reichert loves the limitless possibilities of working with puppets: