BBC Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor), Elkhanah Pulitzer (director), Julie Mathevet, Jarrett Ott, Alan Oke, Davóne Tines, BBC Singers
Barbican Hall, 11th January 2020
In which American contemporary composer David Lang, co-founder alongside Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon and probably best known for his Pulitzer prize winning the little match girl passion, offers up his update of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, (in its various, protracted, incarnations). And yes he does title his compositions in lower-case.
Mr Lang has come up with some striking and novel ideas in the past to inspire his largely vocal body of work. Comic strips, disappearances, Bach, Death, search engines, the crowd at Highbury, national anthems, autopsies, Glen Gould and broken musical instruments. The whiff of the conceptual, which I like. POTS however focuses on the big themes at the heart of LvB’s opera, liberty, justice, freedom, heroism, sacrifice, as well as the central love story, but jettisons all of the comic padding, glorious as it easy musically if not always dramatically, and compacts the story down to just under an hour. Like a best bits, reworked in the immediate, post-minimalist style, though still with plenty of punch, that characterises the music of DL and his compatriots.
The lead characters become Every-Men, and Women, with Leonara now the Assistant, who inveigles her way into the prion where hubby Florestan is now the Prisoner, watched over by the Jailor and the Governor, as well as assorted guards, and a prisoser chorus which features throughout. This permits a more timeless vibe, for all the prisoners of the state, then and now, highlighted in DL’s own idiomatic and very direct libretto, which borrows from other, relevant texts (Machiavelli, Bentham, Rousseau, Hannah Arendt, and a list of English prisoners about to be carted off to Australia) . OK so maybe the simplification, at least musically, with a regular rhythmic ostinato ebb and flow of build-up arias and big choruses, verges on the repetitive, but there is no denying its emotional impact. Even if at times. especially in the final climax, the sound got a bit messy. DL certainly knows how to handle a chorus.
I have to confess that I do not know Fidelio as well as I should given my firm conviction that Beethoven was the greatest music maker of all time. A couple of productions seen on telly/laptop and a couple of listens through, with less than complete concentration, is plainly insufficient. Failed to secure a ticket for this season’s ROH production from Tobias Kratzer so a cinema viewing will have to suffice. Which means I couldn’t tell you how David Lang has re-interpreted LvB’s key set pieces though I gather they are largely present and correct if concentrated.
The singspiel style opera was semi-staged, as intended by DL, under the direction of Elkhanah Pulitzer, with a simple set design from Matt Saunders to simulate the prison, complete with lighting from Thom Weaver, projections from Yuki Izumihara and costumes from Maline Casta. I could see it working effectively as quasi-oratorio given its simple, though winning, harmonic language and direct story-telling. After all the original is more about ideas and character than convincing narrative The (amplified) vocal parts prioritise power and clarity over intricacy, which favoured the bass-baritone of Davone Tines as the Jailor and elfin soprano Julie Mathevet who convinced as the heroic, disguised, Assistant/Wife. The contrast between the defiant idealist Prisoner, baritone Jarrett Ott, and Alan Okie’s rich tenor as the authoritarian Governor was also effective, though the latter backed down pretty quickly when it cane to the pivotal rescue scene. Mind you at least this avoided the cringey, sexist ending of Beethoven’s original as the townspeople bang on about wifely virtue rather than freedom from tyranny.
This cast, with the the exception of Davone Tines, performed at the premiere of the work by the New York Philharmonic, and it will also be getting airings at co-commisioners, in Rotterdam, Barcelona, Bochum and Bruges. I have no doubt that the BBCSO and BBC Singers (here assisted by some enthusiastic students from the Guildhall) will have more than held their own against the other ensembles during the tour of the work. Once again I was struck by the authority and commitment that the oh so versatile BBCSO brought to the work.