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With this production, provocative Spanish opera director Calixto Bieito brings a radical interpretation of Fidelio to the ENO.
Based on a true incident during the French revolution, Beethoven's only opera depicts the rescue of a political prisoner by his wife Leonora who has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio.
The composer set the opera in 18th century Spain and this location, together with the drama of Beethoven's music, transforms a tale of the French revolution into a generalised model of the struggle of the human spirit against the darkness of oppression.
Bieito's postmodern vision takes that generalisation further, with inspiration drawn from sources as disparate as Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Their work expresses a sense of entrapment and human alienation and this is visually realised in Rebecca Ringst's impressive set, a grid of strip-lit giant bars through which the prisoners clamber and crawl.
Unlike Mozart, drama was not Beethoven's forte and Fidelio is generally admired more for its symphonic approach than its dramatic structure.
And the comic opera element of the first act, with its love triangles and mistaken identity, sits uneasily with the serious themes that follow.
Occasionally, Bieito's dramatic pulse seems a little weak and the recitation from Borges by the cast does not always convince. Yet the feisty performances by Emma Bell as Leonore/Fidelio and Sarah Tynan as Marzelline overcome those halting moments.
Stuart Skelton provides a forceful interpretation as Leonore's imprisoned husband Florestan in contrast with his jailer Don Pizarro (Philip Horst), who's inaudible at times.
That certainly isn't the case with the second prisoner - Ronald Naime, one to watch -whose voice soars out beautifully.
Although flawed, Bieito's production has its sublime moments as when the crawling humans, living in hope and desperation, visually merge with the deep humanity of Beethoven's score.
It exemplifies a contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment itself - as the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin stated, there is "no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."
The ending, as Don Fernando appears like an armed 18th century fop, is controversial. But Bieito has a point - his role in this interpretation cannot be that of magisterial liberator. A "heroic" finish, when the last and present centuries have shown that Beethoven's great ideals of liberty and freedom have not come to fruition, would not ring true.
That is referenced too in the programme image of the "disappeared" in Spain during the Franco period which poignantly haunts the subtext of Bieito's production.
Runs until October 13. Box office: (020) 7845-9300
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