At the outset I've got to say the Welsh National Opera 2010 production of the opera Fidelio by Beethoven was a disappointment for me. This despite the inspirational nature of the music as a rousing, triumphant affirmation of the belief that the most important human qualities - love, courage and kindness - can exist in even the most inhuman of conditions. It is a story about a woman who disguises herself as a man working in a prison in order to save her husband who is languishing there through no fault of his own.
There were both tender intimate scenes and highly charged choruses. However, the emotional impact of the performance on me was lacking. The singing was first class and the soloists in particular deserve admiration given the great vocal skill and endurance demanded of them by the score. But to my mind the acting of the performers seemed wooden. What little movement on the stage seemed to happen in slow motion.
I hadn't previously seen this opera or even heard any of its music. All I knew was that it was my late father's favourite perhaps because he was a Beethoven fan - as in fact am I. And so I don't know whom to blame. Was it the artistic director in the way the performance was directed? Or was it the composer because of something flawed in the opera itself?
Beethoven usually reveals a profound depth of humanity in his music and listening again today at home to the 'Prisoners' chorus and the scene in which the rescue takes place, I am really uplifted and drawn to this composition. This is the Beethoven I love. Nevertheless, unlike the work of a theatrical composer such as Hector Berlioz, I suspect his compositions are just not dramatic and visually engaging enough for a modern audience especially these days brought up on later Italian opera and American musicals.
My main criticism possibly will sound fatuous and even sexist. But the lead role of Leonore was sung by someone who failed to inspire my sense of the feminine. Isn't this supposed to be a romantic tale about a wife who risks her own life to save her husband from death? But as my mother commented afterwards, it was a pity she didn't wear a 'frilly frock' during the last scene. Her manly attire - so necessary for her role of male disguise - didn't do her portly figure any favours. As us overweight individuals probably know only to well, visual effect is important when one is on public view.
During his lifetime Beethoven suffered worsening hearing and perhaps became deaf to the clamour of the world and the world of appearances. Yet despite his higher musical inspiration, the dramatic appeal of the theatre in particular demands that attention be given to our natural involvement in what happens on stage. The worldly mind of the audience is as important to them as their higher ideals. What they see with their eyes and hear with their ears is as relevant as their higher perception. If played by an orchestra that is under-rehearsed or using poorly tuned instruments, music will not be readily appreciated - not that these were true at the performance I was at.
It has been thought by some that the essence of the spiritual life is to renounce the world. But ignore the bodily senses at your peril if you want to communicate your artistic inspiration. The same applies to all walks of life - not just the artistic one. How products are marketed is crucial to their sales. How we each present ourselves to prospective employers, strangers at social gatherings, and even our own loved ones is important in developing relationships.
The longstanding dichotomy between idealism and materialism comes to mind. Neither seems a correct view of what can be good about opera. Musical ideas alone not backed up by the things of the senses don't work. Neither do attention-getting sounds and spectacle endure without any deeper ideals. Both musical ideas and corresponding things on a material plane are needed. This notion of correspondence is central to holism. Musical ideas, and in particular musical ideals, endure and are part of the reality of what Swedenborg called the 'spiritual world'. But material things on the plane of our senses are also real as the Aristotelians thought. But the two do need to correspond to produce a memorable occasion.
When they don't, stage performers who are poorly cast for their roles will lack credibility and poor stage directions or dramatic discontinuity will fail to capture the drama.
Copyright 2010 Stephen Russell-Lacy