The prison is the star of this powerful and peculiar interpretation of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio at the ENO.
As the overture begins, the prisoners emerge and start scurrying around a giant Perspex maze like distressed lab rats in some sinister medical experiment. Again and again, they look for a way out but each time in vain – they are blocked, blinded and electrocuted. The prison is merciless, flashing like an epileptic-hating super-computer as the stabbing orchestration mocks the prisoners’ predicament. Only a thin flutey note of hope breaks through this increasingly disturbing spectacle as Fidelio, aka Leonore, the disguised wife of jailed whistle-blower Florestan, arrives to take on the monolithic system.
There are some stunning moments here as bad boy director Calixto Bieito channels Kafka and Borges (and Hannibal Lecter) and drags this notoriously dank and claustrophobic piece into the harsh light of day, emphasising the clean white horror of modern institutional incarceration. It’s a huge challenge for the singers who not only have to hurdle Beethoven’s music, but also the wires and walls of Rebecca Ringst’s mesmerising set. It’s suitably exhausting watching them in full trill as they hang off ladders and squirm within their box-like cells. Emma Bell as Fidelio/Leonore excels, unfazed even while stripping to her underwear. Though not all the performers seem quite so well suited to the physical demands of the staging: Stuart Skelton as Florestan unleashes a haunting cri de coeur at the beginning of Act Two, yet the fact that he resembles James Corden does cut against the idea that his character is on the brink of starvation. There are a few other distracting touches: an acid blinding, an irrelevant suicide and a hammy deus ex machina climax, which lack the sophistication of the whole. Still, considering this is Bieito, the gratuitous touches are kept to a minimum and the production delivers a rich study of the psychology of humanity imprisoned.
ENO's Fidelio is on at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, Westminster, WC2N 4ES until 17 October. Londonist saw this opera on a complimentary ticket.