This collaboration of well established giants, Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer, which premiered here four days ago, imposed the sort of challenge one might expect from younger Turks. The music seemed new; the staging was rude; the supertitles were forgone. New, for starters, was the Overture – the rarely played third version done in tempi and phrasing still rarer; rude felt the systematic breakdown of any distance between actors and parts acted, and any distinction between fact and fiction, past and present, creation and reproduction, reality and illusion. The lack of supertitles was justified by the absolute clarity and enunciation of a cast to be dreamed of, and ultimately the whole thing came home and made sense at the close.
Barenboim has shaken things up before – as at last year’s Meistersinger, reviewed here also – as if to re-awaken the audience to musical ideas in the score that might have been smothered by the familiarity of more standard renditions. The long Leonore Overture no.3 was played slowly, with an almost brutal span between piano and forte. Black scrim hid the stage until some time near the middle, when a spotlight revealed on the stage a big Beckstein with a bust of Beethoven and a couple of white booklets on it: it shone long enough to show these to us but faded away before we understood. Not Beethoven’s piano of course, but Beethoven’s spirit was there in the bust, and we got an inkling that it designated Beethoven the performed, not Beethoven the composer. At the end of the overture the lights come on and we see a set of personages in normal dress facing, with us, in the rear, where the we see a backdrop brightly lit and brilliant, a vision of the Musikverein Wien seen from the seats, perhaps the most recognizable way to invoke and “place us” into a performance in Vienna, the city in which both the opera’s two premiers took place. As soon as we recognize it and before we have any idea why we are looking at it with these people, let alone who they are, the entire picture suddenly falls to the ground revealing a dark gray stone wall behind: it was a tapestry of sorts – the people nearby it at the rear carry it off the stage and now two of them are left on stage to begin singing from the white booklets on the piano. It is a duet; they must be Jaquino and Marzelline; the stone wall must be the wall of the prison: the opera has begun.
If we did not know the piece, and even the action, we would likely not understand what is happening in front of us, for what we are seeing is a comment on the performance and a performance at the same time. The costumes tell us little; the action takes place around a piano which soon enough is pushed off the stage so as to make place for the prisoners to come into the courtyard for light and air. I doubt Matti Salminen has pushed a piano offstage many times in his life, but he will have done it several times this fall in Berlin. When the prisoners finish their milling about and must return to the prison they doff their prison cloaks and walk of the stage in their street clothes: the First Act ends with their clothes lying where they stood. The continual refusal to hide the player behind the part played brings down upon the audience a command to remain aware of themselves as audience: belief is never allowed willingly to suspend itself, and instead we are being asked not only to hear but also to listen to the music, to reflect on its historicity as a piece conceived just after the French Revolution whose premiere was spoiled in part by Napoleon’s arrival in Vienna soon after, a work the man behind the bust of Beethoven worked on and struggled with for more than ten years of his life.
Soon enough we realize that we expect the director not only to protect a distinction between fact and fiction, but more, that he will preserve a hierarchy for us, our superior position as disinterested observer that liberates us for a while from our self-awareness. Entertainment, we arrived believing and anticipating, will entertain us – that is, will take over our consciousness and distract us from ourselves. But because the double identity of the persons and objects on the stage is maintained, of the actor as opposed to the role played and of the physical stage and the prison setting it barely depicts, we too continue to feel a double identity, as an audience seated en face and being told a story, and as minds conscious of receiving this story and evaluating it all along the way, and not just at the end.
The peculiar challenge of the two identities and the tension it imposes upon the audience’s consciousness is finally rewarded at the denouement of the action, when Fidelio reveals herself to be Leonore in the course of blocking Pizarro’s attack upon Florestan with a knife. She intervenes, first as Fidelio (Durchboren musst du erst diese Brust) but then, definitively, as Florestan’s wife (Töt’ erst sein Weib). Pizarro at first recoils in shock and in a duet with Rocco expresses his astonishment, not so much at learning the secret identity of Fidelio as at beholding this courageous and loyal act of a wife, this “Triumph of Married Love” – the subtitle of the opera. The subsequent action does not pit Leonore against Pizarro but suddenly by a deus ex machina puts a pistol in her hands that preempts any further attack by him – but only long enough for the arrival of Don Fernando to be announced which already seals the Pizarro’s fate. But it is Florestan to whom Leonore now says Ja sieh hier Leonore! not to them for all their astonishment. From this moment on, in our current production, Leonore and Florestan become each other’s and no longer ours nor even the plot’s. They spend the rest of the opera together – sitting together, holding hands, relieved of their years of separation and anguish, having even forgotten the anguish of their separation and the heavy task of their reuniting through the action of the opera. The other characters are singing to us, now holding again their librettos, but these two are singing to each other. With their removal from the plot they seem to be Camilla Nylund and Andreas Schager, and believe it or not, they are!
The entire chorus comes on stage for the finale, in their own clothes as it appears, singing the chorus of Freedom (Freiheit!). For decorum’s sake Pizarro has left the stage so as not to spoil the happy and ultimately naïve unanimity of this vision of liberation and release, but the historical sense that the opera had kept open for us, the fresh and modern sense of freedom as a natural state of man that Beethoven himself had in mind in the course of composing the work, is now presented directly to us, regardless and independent of the plot, by a huge chorus in street clothes. It is a freedom we no longer believe in but can remember from history. At the last moment Pizarro is allowed to return to the stage, and the backdrop from the Musikverein reappears in all its splendor and we ourselves are transported into the past, becoming them and facing with them the stage of the great golden hall.
Only such heady concepts as Freedom and the Brotherhood of Man, later to be scored in the An die Freude, can play the elixir to make all these boundaries disappear. In the end this complex and inconvenient production, with its flawless and star-studded cast, has transcended itself to present its primary idea and theme without mediation, in all its simplicity. Two giants have reaffirmed their hegemony.
— Ken Quandt