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  • Chris O'Rourke


Irish National Opera's Fidelio. Image by Pat Redmond


Crowding the cavernous stage, prisoners and guards sing a chorus to freedom. Meanwhile, dwarfed in the corner, Leonore and her husband Florestan sit tucked in like afterthoughts. This image, towards the end of Irish National Opera's production of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, proves essentially true to the whole. Serving up a political tale with a love interest rather than a love story against a political backdrop. Taking a politicised direction which might please many, even as it will leave others less enthused.

The disappearance of dissenting political voices from across the globe lends a current resonance. Foregrounded as Fidelio's cobbled libretto, constructed by several authors, totters to find its feet. Lenore, disguised as a man, Fidelio, works as a prison guard trying to locate her husband Florestan. A political activist who disappeared after speaking against prison governor Don Pizarro. A matter complicated by Fidelio's boss, Rocco, giving his blessing for Fidelio to marry his lovestruck daughter, Marzelline. Much to the chagrin of her suitor and colleague, Jaquino. The imminent arrival of Don Fernando, the Kings Minister, to inspect the prison sees Don Pizarro rushing to get rid of his secret prisoner. Given one of Beethoven's alternate titles for Fidelio was The Triumph of Marital Love, there's no prizes for guessing how it ends.

Sinéad Campbell Wallace, Daniel Sumegi and Kelli-Ann Masterson inIrish National Opera's Fidelio. Image by Pat Redmond

Dissatisfied, Beethoven produced at least three versions of Fidelio, and his indecision shows. The whole, like the libretto, feeling constructed by a committee; the sweeping overtures, solid if not particularly memorable solos, and utterly sublime choral work not always sounding balanced. Walking an uneasy line between comedy and melodrama, it presents unique challenges, which director Annabelle Comyn resolves by making strong choices likely to win plaudits from some quarters, to be less appreciated by others.

Such as Francis O'Connor's oppressive, industrial stage and dull, uniformed costumes, steeped in the gloom of Paul Keogan's lights. From guards to soldiers to politicians, the uniform dominates emphasising role over person, the dehumanised over the human. Romantically, Leonore makes no metaphoric descent into hell. Rather a literal descent to the bottom of a gloomy prison with bars and steel balconies, policed by men and women with guns. Prison officers, looking like parcel deliver drivers, allow flickers of identity and comedy emerge, especially during spoken dialogue. Only the prisoners display a shambolic sense of visual individuality.

Robert Murray and Sinéad Campbell Wallace in Irish National Opera's Fidelio. Image by Pat Redmond

Despite a conceptually modern veneer, Fidelio proves to be a conventionally staged opera. Against the sweep and flow of Beethoven's music there's a solidity to performances, singers most often rooted and grounded, sometimes looking visually stiff. Aside from the chorus, whose singing is spectacular. Vocally, singers don't so much compliment as contrast, enriching the layering of Beethoven's score. Soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson's (Marzelline) crystal timbre offset by Soprano Sinéad Campbell Wallace's (Leonore) robust and commanding power. Bass baritone Daniel Sumegi's warmth (Rocco), with the bombast of baritone Brian Mulligan (Pizarro). The authority of bass baritone David Howes (Don Fernando) and the peevishness of tenor Dean Power (Jaquino). Power perfectly positioned as a tenor foil in a world full of so much bass.

Irish National Opera's Fidelio. Image by Pat Redmond

If love conquers all, Comyn leaves no doubt she's not interested in love so much as it's political ramifications. Leonore might be hailed for her fidelity, but the worried glint in the ministers eyes says she might want to watch her political ambitions. The new military, looking as facist as the old military, leave no illusion of a happy ever after. And love? It's there, offering comic relief, character motivation, or complication to the plot. Never rising to the level of politics. The balance never quite achieved. Still, first night jitters aside, Fidelio's singing captivates, especially the chorus, Fergus Shiel conducts the pit with verve, and the joy of sharing the experience with a live audience is priceless.

Fidelio, by Beethoven, presented by Irish National Opera, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until Nov 13.

For more information visit Irish National Opera or Gaiety Theatre.


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