Fidelio, Norwich

CHARLES ROBERTS In all the world of opera, there are few works to match the philosophical grandeur, humanity and compassion which mark out Beethoven's Fidelio.

CHARLES ROBERTS

In all the world of opera, there are few works to match the philosophical grandeur, humanity and compassion which mark out Beethoven's Fidelio.

In this Glyndebourne Touring Opera production, at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, one could have believed the designer of sets and costumes had set out to neutralise those soaring qualities – brutal modernism without even the excuse of clarity. But fortunately there are powerful forces which together rise triumphantly over this provoking visual prospect.

First, there is Beethoven's tremendous, inspirational score, here interpreted by the orchestra and its conductor (Neil Beardmore, making his debut with the GTO) with finesse and colour and passion. Second, there is an admirable company, principals and chorus alike, whose vocal textures are repeatedly uplifting. At the close, in the opera's final, great ensemble, their glorious surge of sound touches heart and mind with the intensity of a religious experience.

One knew this production was going to be a musical experience within minutes of the curtain going up.

Preceded by an exquisitely rich orchestral introduction, we are led into a quartet for the heroine, Leonore (Gunilla Stephen-Kallin, mezzo), the gaoler Rocco (Clive Bayley, bass), Rocco's daughter Narzelline (Sarah Fox, soprano) and the prison janitor, Jacquino (Mark Wilde, tenor). It burgeons like sunlight after cloud, ravishing in its effect.

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Miss Stephen-Kallin has warm power in her middle registers, but in the higher reaches is uncomfortably at the very top of her range. Clive Bayley, even when speaking, effortlessly projects a silken, dark bass which is sheer pleasure to hear. Mark Wilde's youthful tenor has splendid flexibility.

But it is Sarah Fox who steals the honours with a voice of creamy warmth and range and easy eloquence.

Nils Olsson, tenor, sings Florestan, Leonore's imprisoned husband, with Wagnerian sonority and effect. Florestan has occupied a deep dungeon for two years and, allegedly, been increasingly starved by the wicked prison governor, Pizarro (Mark Holland, firing baritone broadsides of sound).

It must have been another Florestan, because this one is notably well fed. Then again, you can never be sure in opera.

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