Epileptics beware! ENO’s jarring production of Beethoven’s only opera begins with a strobe light flickering behind a framework of green neon strip-lights. The frame in question is a huge construction of interconnected Perspex boxes (designed by Rebecca Ringst) in which the cast and chorus clamber around like they were in some science-fiction version of the eighteenth century. That, of course, would be fine, if it were a consistent theme, but in director Calixto Bieito’s vision, all sorts of random elements are thrown in. The cast, for example, wear modern business suits, except for government minister Don Fernando (bass Roland Wood) who arrives at the end in full foppish attire and fires the missing pistol – stipulated in the libretto to be brandished by Leonora, but substituted in this production for a large canister of corrosive. The result of this substitution sums up the production –somewhere between comedy and vulgarity, whereby Leonora douses cruel prison governor Don Pizarro (bass-baritone Philip Horst) in the deadly liquid, before he reappears, his face covered in blood, to merrily sing in the final ensemble.
Other inexplicable interpolations include shaky readings of poetry by Borges (courtesy of the singers) and the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op 132 String Quartet, beautifully played by the Heath Quartet, which is flown in deus-ex-machina-style. By that stage, however, it hardly matters what else Bieito does, the piece is already well and truly beyond redemption in this queasy adaptation with its unchanging set.
The tragedy of this perverse conception is that it has a fine cast and orchestra under Edward Gardner. Emma Bell is a convincing Leonora (the faithful wife who pretends to be a man to rescue her husband Florestan from prison). Soprano Sarah Tynan, with her youthful looks and plaintive tones, is also well cast as Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter infatuated with the cross-dressed Leonora. James Creswell sings and acts well as the jailer Rocco, the father of Marzelline; and bass Ronald Naire sings impressively as the Second Prisoner.
Much anticipation greets tenor Stuart Skelton, whose appearance as Florestan opens the second half, and after some absurd histrionics as a trapped creature in his transparent prison, he strikes his opening note on the word ‘God’. It is magnificent. Shame he and his fellow principals are undermined by this souless production. Jonathan Lennie