A Fidelio about love
II Hoffman Festival in Poznań
Masterpieces are never unequivocal. It is difficult to say that, for instance, Fidelio is about imprisonment or fidelity or perhaps love. Everyone, including a director, will find in the work those values that are closest to him or her, values he or she is particularly sensitive to. For Tomasz Konina (who not only directed the Poznań production but also designed the sets and lighting) Beethoven’s Fidelio is about love, a love so great that it can lead to the ultimate sacrifice. The themes of imprisonment and regaining freedom were not of prime importance to him. Thank God!
During the overture, a beautiful and poignant scene unfolds before our eyes: dozens of women seated at the tables and looking at photographs of men, are writing letters to their husbands, fathers and brothers. Or perhaps they are writing petitions for permissions to see them? Maybe petitions for their release? Only one of them sits motionless, looking into the distance. Suddenly, she stands up and rushes into the light – Leonora has decided to act; she has had enough of waiting, of unanswered letters, useless petitions.
The beginning of act I introduces a completely different mood. We watch a funny domestic scene: Marceline, looking like a typical Hausfrau, irons a shirt, makes coffee, serves chocolates; Jaquino makes yes at Marceline; he brings her a flower which she tears to pieces; the young man later tries to „mend” it. Marcelina reads Cosmopolitan, from which Jaquino tries to chose a gift for his beloved – fancy underwear perhaps… When he comes too close, Marceline scares him off with a hot iron. Only Fidelio-Leonora is in low spirits because of Marceline’s unwelcome advances. The scene is great fun to watch (and to listen to – the music in this fragment is, after all, rather light) and not only shows the director’s sense of humour, but also proves to be a crucial element in his conception of the work. The idyllic picture serves as a powerful contrast to the dark and sinister reality close-by, right next to Rocco’s flat – the prison, the kingdom of the cruel Pizarro. We ca see the dungeon where Florestan is kept. A huge screen flickers annoyingly, like a TV set that has not been turned off. The grey flickering light irritates, the eyes get tired and have to be averted. Florestan sings an aria – bitterness, lack of hope, anguish. When he starts remembering Leonora, he immediately calms down and smiles, and the irritating screen hiss ends. Florestan is overwhelmed by a vision of an everyday, joyful meal with his wife, a vision we watch on the screen. The clear, warm image brings comfort to the audience as well. On the same screen we watch stairs, doors, walls, metal bars and pipes brought out of darkness by a beam of light. Enter Leonora and Rocco, who turns off his lamp – we have just witnessed their journey through hell. The finale: prisoners storm onto the stage, throw away their prison uniforms; they are dressed like workers leaving their factory – in jeans, shirts, jackets; women run up to them, dressed in their ordinary, everyday dresses. No sets, only a plain brick wall; it would be difficult to imagine a better prison courtyard.
These are just a few scenes from this clear and logical production. There is nothing unnecessary in it, no superfluous props, no sets pretending to be real, painted horizons or prison bars. The light (beautiful, limpid colours) and the video projections inspire the audience to create their own world in which the loving Leonora and the loved Florestan live. The costumes, or rather clothes, are ordinary: dresses, trousers, jackets. The crowd looks like a crowd in today’s street, a sight that is somewhat startling at first, but far less so than the sight of prisoners in white cloaks and hats. Konina’s vision is so convincing to me, because he does not pretend; he creates space, shows relations between characters, and the rest is up to us, to our imagination and sensitivity.
The Poznań production of Fidelio is in my opinion one of the greatest achievements of Polish operatic theatre in recent years. Unfortunately I cannot say the same about the musical side of the performance. I was greatly impressed only by the chorus (prepared by Jolanta Dota-Komorowska); they sang on pitch, with confidence and a beautiful sound, and coped magnificently with the hair-raising tempo of the final scene. It must be said that the conductor’s (Tadeusz Strugała’s) tempi throughout the performance could (and I know they did) raise some doubts. I liked them, and for those familiar with the Teldec recording under Nicolas Harnoncourt those tempi were by no means surprising. The orchestra, however was not equally enthusiastic. Or maybe it was not a lack of enthusiasm but a lack of skill to do justice to Fidelio. Everyone knows how fiendishly difficult that score is and what high-class musicians it needs. In Poznań, the audience had to stand bad timing, an ugly tone and too frequently off-pitch playing. The overture was particularly poor, hence more congratulations for the director for giving the audience an absorbing picture on stage and thus mercifully turning their attention from what was going on in the pit. Vocally, only Marcelina of Roma Jakubowska-Handke was thoroughly satisfying. To an effortlessly produced, attractive voice Jakubowska-Handke added fine acting and created a convincing character. Acting-wise, she had an excellent partner in Piotr Friebe, who was a touchingly vulnerable Jaquino. The rest of the soloists were clearly tired (too many rehearsals?) or maybe were not hundred per cent fit that evening. One could hear it particularly in the voice of Bogusław Szynalski (Pizarro). Marek Szymański, with his relatively small and not very dramatic voice, struggled (at times mightily) with the short but challenging role of Florestan, though his acting was fine, especially in more lyrical moments. Despite occasional problems (caused very likely by too strenuous rehearsals), Barbara Kubiak (Leonora) gave a noteworthy performance; I would like to hear this singer in a better vocal form. Władysław Podsiadły (Rocco) and Jerzy Mechliński were bland both vocally and dramatically.