A fascinating business, this: coming back from that very Beethoveny trip to Bonn and landing bang in the middle of Calixto Bieito's production of Fidelio at ENO.
This staging seems to have left audiences not so much divided as ranged round a spectrum of 360-odd viewpoints. Predictably, many hated it - and yes, there was some booing of the production team on opening night, though it was counterbalanced by cheering elsewhere in the house. Here are two contrasting reviews to demonstrate that range: Andrew Clements in The Guardian and Tully Potter in the Mail. (Production pics by Tristram Kenton.)
Bieito's concept, you'll have gathered, is that the prison is our mind, and each character, with the possible exception of Leonore, is trapped within a type of living rabbit-hutch of his/her own making. It is art that sets us free, not least because temporal authority - Don Fernando, whose shock appearance at the end said much about our lack of trust in leaders today - can't be relied on. Don Fernando in the original Munich version of this production resembled not the 18th-century fop who graces the ENO stage, but the Joker from Batman. He is more than an unreliable leader: he is the cruelty, capriciousness and vile irony of fate itself (at least, if you share Bieito's dark view of life).
Full text here.) That prison was not of Beethoven's own making, but remained an anguish-inducing fetter nonetheless; yet without that, would he have composed the same music that has reached us today, in the form of the greatest of his symphonies, the late quartets, the Diabelli Variations, and this opera too? Art may not have set him free from that ailment, but his music has lived on to prove what glories a human being can create, given the necessary courage and strength, and that there is beauty and truth in art even when we can find little of it anywhere else. He brings us (as Andras said the other day) courage. That's a liberation in itself.
As Bieto floats the brave Heath Quartet above the reunited Florestan and Leonore, the first violin and cello each in an individual cage, the second violin and viola together in a third, drifting overhead but somehow able to play the (truncated) Heilige Dankgesang of Beethoven's Op.132 quartet despite their boxes wandering in draughts from side to side, the point is proven. (More here...)
This is not in the original Fidelio. But it works. Bieito may not be bringing us a Fidelio that we recognise, or a literal one that could have been seen in the 1950s, but instead a personal vision of the work that speaks volumes about our world today and the enduring power of Beethoven within it.
The musical performance, by the way, was red-hot under Ed Gardner's direction, with the glory that is Stuart Skelton as Florestan and the central force of Emma Bell's idealistic and beautifully sung Leonore. And the chorus was magnificent.
So why the vitriol? A case of chacun a son gout, of course. But my own little problem with all of this is not about Bieito's concept. It's about the language. I have no objection to Bieito's choice of using quotes from Jose Luis Borges, the Argentinian-born magical realist (pictured below), whose image of the labyrinth seems to underpin the elaborate contraption that forms the set, and whose words take the place of the usual dialogue. But is something being lost in translation?
Here are a few Borges poems, translated. And here are some more, in Spanish. Now, my Spanish is, er, a bit rusty. But read them aloud, to the best of one's limited abilities, and you can still feel the music in the syllables.
A translation can bring us the literal message; but without the music inherent in the words the poet created, half the real meaning may be gone. I remember, many years ago, my Russian then-boyfriend discovered that I wasn't familiar with the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and disapproved of this major gap in my cultural education. I bought a volume in translation - only to suffer bitter disappointment at the pedestrian nature of what I was reading. My friend took one look, chucked the book over a shoulder, and recited one of the poems by heart, in the original. I understood not one literal word - yet it remained one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.
Translating is difficult enough. Translating well is harder still. And translating singably is an art all its own. I've had a shot at it myself recently: earlier this year I prepared an English version of Roxanna Panufnik's Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life for a recording that has just been made. Faced with literal translations of 19 poems by two of Estonia's leading poets, and Rox's painstaking and extraordinarily beautiful settings of the original Estonian, I had to make the new English words fit her existing music: you need open syllables on the longer, higher notes, you need the right emotional inflection on the appropriate harmony, and so forth. Some of them had to rhyme; all of them had to make rhythmic sense. And in literal translation, the poems might well have lost the essence of their poetry; a few liberties had to be taken, paradoxically, in order to restore some of that to the concepts. The poets, fortunately, are alive and kicking and able to approve the texts, which they have done. But talk about a learning curve...
Many people in the regular ENO audience love opera in English. That is the company's raison d'etre and normally, these days, it goes unquestioned. Opera-goers frequently troop into the Coli only too pleased to hear a performance in our own language, while despairing over the avant-garde concepts and experimental outlooks that are being fostered there. I realise now that I do the opposite. I am happy that in ENO today we have a thoroughly modern European opera house that's engaging directors to preside over a great deal more than crowd-control and park-and-bark productions and that enters partnerships with houses like Munich and the Met to make greater ambitions reality. But I'm trying to remember the last time I rejoiced in principle at hearing an opera in English that is not originally in English and I can't think of one single occasion. I have enjoyed individual translations at ENO by Jeremy Sams, whose sparkling versions of La Boheme and The Magic Flute, for example, do work wonders. He, though, seems to be the exception.
We don't have that issue with Peter Grimes (come and hear it tonight at the RFH, incidentally). It's not about the language itself; English is perfectly singable - Britten, Delius, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Thomas Ades, George Benjamin and many others prove it every day. But composers set words according not only to their meaning, but according to the music they feel inside the language the poet has used.
A translation is, essentially, bound to be a compromise. Some succeed better than others, but I'm unconvinced that opera in translation can ever be entirely successful. I'd love to try doing one myself, of course, even if I know the cause may ultimately be lost. But for me that was the single biggest problem with the Bieito Fidelio: the translation, whether of the libretto or the Borges poems. Now that there are surtitles at ENO, is it not time to reopen the whole debate?
It remains only to wonder how on earth Stuart Skelton is managing, this week, to alternate Florestan and Grimes, often on consecutive evenings, and also preside over a charity gala. Perhaps that's what Heldentenors are truly about: heroism.