Fidelio at the Garsington Opera

Here in the United States, as in most of the world, there has been a tragic paucity of opera to sink our teeth into for months. Aside from the nightly video transmissions of operas from the Metropolitan’s archives being made available without cost – most of them recent, from after 2010: Agrippina, Akhnaten, Elektra, Cenerentola – but some historic and quite brilliant: a 1980 Don Carlo (Scotto, Troyanos), La bohèmes from ’77 (Pavarotti, Scotto) and ’82 (Carreras, Stratas), Ariadne from ’88 (Norman, Battle), Barbiere from ’88 (Battle, Blake, Nucci), Don Giovanni from ’78 (Sutherland, Morris), Fanciulla from ’92 (Daniels, Domingo, Milnes), the good old Ring Cycle from ’89 (Behrens, Norman, Morris, Jerusalem), and dozens more, including a Forza and an Aida with Leontyne Price (not at her best).


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Jaquino: Trystan Llŷr Griffiths
Marzelline: Galina Averina
Leonore: Katherine Broderick
Rocco: Stephen Richardson
Don Pizarro: Andrew Foster-Williams
Florestan: Toby Spence
Don Fernando: Richard Burkhard
First Prisoner: Richard Pinkstone
Second Prisoner: Thomas D. Hopkinson

Conductor: Douglas Boyd
Philharmonia Orchestra
Garsington Opera Chorus
Chorus Master: Jonathon Swinard
Stage Director: Peter Mumford



Gotterdämmerung on your car radio

Opera companies are learning to “stretch.” In the coming “dark” months, many opera companies across the country – Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, Florida Grand Opera, Vancouver – are presenting “Great Hits from the Opera” evenings (with up-and-coming stars) and some are putting on chamber works like La voix humaine and Amahl and the Night Visitors. Some are by paid subscription. I would still feel hungry after these telecasts. Michigan Opera Theater just presented an abridged (70 minute) Götterdammerung in a multi-level  parking garage. The audience remain in their cars and the music – singers accompanied by a few instruments – is piped in through the car radios. Eight cars at a time drove up the ramps of the Detroit Opera House garage, which allowed passengers to witness scenes on six different levels. This was repeated twelve times for each day of the brief run. The production will travel to Chicago in the Spring.  Forgive me, but aside from the “how clever!” aspect of it all, I fear it would not quench my opera thirst despite the fact that Christine Goerke was singing Brünnhilde.

The Tulsa, Oklahoma Opera just presented Rigoletto in a baseball stadium, with the lead singers 25 feet apart (on first base, second base, etc.), and the audience of 2700 in stands that normally seat almost 8,000. And The Washington National Opera is traveling around on a truck (lorry) with two singers and a piano offering highlights from The Magic Flute, et al. All three of these examples are “events,” to be sure, but with their haphazard acoustics, street noises and inherent paucity of musical value, they are not for me.

Garsington Opera

Is there no “proper” way to experience opera in these pandemic times? The answer, I found out, is yes, but I had to travel, via OperaVision, to the Garsington Opera, which presented five performances, Covid-clean, of Beethoven’s Fidelio in mid September.

Lively and exciting

The venue seats 600; here the audience numbered 190. The fine reduced orchestration, vividly led by Douglas Boyd, consisted of fourteen players sensibly distanced; there were five live singers in the chorus and a pre-recorded, zoom chorus was projected on the back wall for the act one finale. In effect, this was a “concert” performances, but the term semi-staged seems more apt, with nary a score or music stand to be seen, let alone sets and costumes. Each soloist, placed in front of the small orchestra,  had his/her own spotlight; close interaction was never missed with the exception of the “Namenlose Freude” duet. The soloists looked at each other as they sang when called for (of course, not in “Mir ist so Wunderbar,” which is separate soliloquies). There was no spoken dialogue, in its place, a terse narrative of the action was projected along with English titles. There were mainly abstract images of prisons, walls and barbed wire by lighting designer and director Peter Mumford, with occasional terror-invoking close-ups of a pair of eyes. It was lively and exciting and felt like a true operatic experience, even taped for home entertainment.

Katherine Broderick phrased elegantly and intelligently and held nothing back as Leonore. She occasionally sacrificed tonal roundness for thrilling utterance and her decision to take the alternate ending to “Abscheulischer!” was probably wise: it took nothing from her thrilling, committed performance. Despite the fact that Toby Spence is best known and well respected as Tamino, Tom Rakewell and the Count in Barbiere, his undertaking of Florestan, normally the territory of near-Heldentenors, he wrung every ounce of pathos and determination out of the role, and much like Ms Broderick was only taxed by the cruelest parts of the role. Stephen Richardson’s Rocco was first noticeable as the solid bass line in the first act quartet, his subsequent singing had character and depth. Pizarro’s wickedness was made crystal clear by Andrew Foster-Williams’ grand tone and almost rabid spitting out of the text.  Galina Averina was a charming Marzelline and the puzzled, impatient Jaquino of Trystan Llŷr Griffiths was much appreciated. Richard Burkhard offered  authority as Don Fernando.

The remarkable thing about this “reduced” Fidelio is that almost nothing grander than what we get seems necessary and the slimmed-down orchestration and chorus allow us to hear what we normally miss. The string quintet and essentially one-to-a-part woodwind, brass and tympani allowed us to hear each degree of Beethoven’s melodic creations, every hairpin harmony. So much was revealed, so little missed.

Aside from some sloppiness from the zoomed chorus and a brass blip at the close of “Abscheulischer,” nothing went wrong. After the manic “Er sterbe” ensemble and a high-octane “Tot erst sein Weib!,” “Namenlose Freude ” was a relaxed re-uniting of the lovers. The quick, edgy, super-crisp final moments left me breathless.

I have seen far less convincing, far less moving, far less well sung performances of Fidelio live in an opera house, with all the accoutrements. Economical, sensitive, artistically acute, this is a remarkable performance, no excuses.


Robert Levine
31 October 2020

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Robert Levine


Robert Levine is music writer and editor. He initiated's classical CD store. Author of "Weep, Shudder, Die - A Guide to Loving Opera," "Maria Callas - A Musical Biography," and "A Child's Guide to the Orchestra".

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Marina Boagno
Marina Boagno
9 months ago

“Reduced” opera, even is done in the best of the best way, is all the same the saddest thing I can imagine. Nothng can be compared to be sitting in an opera house and listen to music and voices in the place especially built for them. But obviously I appreciate the effort, and if it is a successful effort, I apprciate it all the more. Let’s hope we can be back in our beloved houses… or rather our “homes” !

Olivier Keegel
9 months ago

I have great respect for the inventiveness with which people somehow manage to perform live opera. We have already seen great examples of this in Garsington, but also in Zurich, Frankfurt and so on. I myself have no interest in watching and listening to opera on a TV or screen at home – I prefer to be present live at one of those corona experiments, which sometimes turn out quite wonderful.


[…] wel, de door corona geforceerde gereduceerde orkestbezetting opent vaak onvermoede klankwerelden. Zoals mijn collega Robert Levine al schreef over de Fidelio in Garsington, lijkt een kleine bezetting meer dan eens “all we need”. De afgeslankte orkestratie stelt ons […]