Fidelio tells us a lot about how liberalism has triumphed over its romantic roots

I was lucky enough to be at the opening night of the ENO’s Fidelio this Thursday;  or at least, so I thought, though the acres of empty seats up in the balcony made me realise on arrival that anyone who wanted to and who could afford a ticket could have got one. There was a time when every opera at the ENO, at least every one I went to, sold out – but those days are far gone.

What can one say about Fidelio? It’s not one of the all-time opera favourites, and I had never seen it before; I had deliberately not read up on the plot, so it would all come to me as a lovely surprise. The music was certainly a lovely surprise, quite ravishing; if you love Beethoven in general, as I do, then you will adore Fidelio. But the production – oh dear, oh dear.

Fidelio is set in a sort of liberal romantic nevernever land: Leonore, disguised as the youth Fidelio, is attempting to rescue her husband Florestan from prison, where he is being held by the oppressive and murderous don Pizarro. The setting is deliberately vague – are we in Spain? – but there are clear parallels with Tosca and also with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. This is all very interesting, because nowadays we live in a land where liberalism is triumphant, but a liberalism that has triumphed too over its romantic roots. In other words we believe in freedom, without any clear idea of what freedom is for.

The great hit number of the opera is the Prisoners’ Chorus: but the impression I got very strongly from this production by Calixto Bieito is that freedom is now something delusive; that we are all trapped in ourselves, and that the romantic dream of doing great things with our freedom is just that – a dream. Bieito may well be right about this – people round the world who are free are using their freedom very badly on the whole – but such an insight contradicts the sense of the opera. And why put on an opera you do not believe in, as the Telegraph’s Michael White asks? 

Apart from all this, the production was supremely ugly as the photographs on the ENO website illustrate: a romantic opera set in a world of post industrial gloom, with a shaky set which reminded me of that other iconic prison drama which funnily enough I have never seen, Prisoner: Cell Block H.

This summer I was lucky enough to see two of the Wagner Proms at the Albert Hall. These were semi-staged, there was no scenery and the costumes were standard concert attire. In other words, the music was allowed to speak for itself. It was bliss: as was the ENO production, when I kept my eyes shut or stared at the Coliseum’s very fine domed ceiling.

Nevertheless I would recommend Fidelio: we need to have a debate about liberalism – after all, we are all children of the Romantic Movement – and Beethoven is a good place to start.