BWW Review: BEETHOVEN'S FIDELIO at Perth Festival
West Australian Symphony Orchestra stays busy during Perth Festival season; this year we've already seen and heard them with WA Opera's Hansel and Gretel, Meow Meow's Pandemonium and Bungul. But this weekend WASO gets top billing for its festival entry, Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. The opera is presented in concert, with text narrated by Eryn Jean Norvill, and features internationally renowned soloists along with WASO and WA Opera Choruses under the baton of Asher Fisch.
Alison Croggon has provided dramatic text to accompany the music, while BLACK SWAN State Theatre's Clare Watson has been enlisted to direct the performance. Croggon's evocative narrative gives the opera historical context, provides supplementary narration in place of German dialogue, and offers a contemporary framework with which to relate to the opera's themes of love and liberation from political persecution. We might draw many parallels to the trials and tribulations of Julian Assange, perhaps.
Eryn Jean Norvill reads this text from a podium at the side of the stage between musical numbers, and in those moments, the whole of the musical momentum is transferred to her shoulders. Most of the time, Norvill stands strong under this weight, but once in a while she falters. This is through no fault of her own - she is an incredibly captivating narrator - but I do question whether it's a successful storytelling mechanism in the end to have a single performer uphold the energy of an entire orchestra, chorus and cast.
Despite the awkward narrative structure, Fidelio was a rousing, outstanding success. In the title role of Fidelio/Leonore was German soprano Christiane Libor, a performer of extraordinary calibre and power. Her "Abscheulicher!" aria is nothing short of jaw-dropping, with exquisite accompaniment by the WASO horns. Leonore sings about rescuing her husband Florestan (Tomislav Muzek) from prison, and the aria is as demanding physically as it is emotionally. Libor has full command of her instrument, and she takes no prisoners in her delivery. She makes us believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is a force of nature, and nothing will stand between her and Florestan.
Florestan too gets his moment to shine, and just as Libor has her lush trio of horns, Muzek has a beautiful oboist (Rachael Clegg) to accompany him, whose tender counter-melodies offer our dying prisoner comfort in the darkness. However, It's the villain of the piece, Don Pizarro, performed by Warwick Fyfe, who counters Libor's gravitas with wild fiendishness. He's an absolute menace, and uses his whole body to realise the character, even sacrificing technical perfection in his singing in order to make Pizarro behave and sound as odious as possible. Perth audiences love to boo opera villains as if they were at a pantomime, and Fyfe received a sound booing from the audience at the curtain call; I suppose this means they thought he did his job well. I think he did too.
Upon our return from interval after a cliffhanger, the audience is full of anticipation, and the stage is full of even more chorus members. In the first half we only heard from the men for the Prisoner's chorus, but now we have the women too. WASO Chorus has joined forces with the WAO Chorus for this concert, and after the plot denouement, everyone - choruses, orchestra, and most of the cast (Pizarro has run away like a coward) - join together for the big, and I mean BIG, Phil Spector Wall of Sound, final number. It brings the audience right to their feet.
The performance has been recorded for ABC Classic, and will be broadcast on Friday, 13 March at 8pm (though I'm not at all certain if that is WA time). I will be doing my best to tune in to hear Christiane Libor's phenomenal "Abschuelicher!" once again.
Beethoven's Fidelio was performed at Perth Concert Hall on February 28th and March 1st 2020 as part of Perth Festival.