Festival Opera


Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

AS in the seasons of many opera companies, including Scottish Opera, as well as at the BBC Proms, the Edinburgh Festival has had great success with concert performances of operas to augment the vastly expensive exercise of staged productions. This year is no exception, with Strauss’s Salome and Handel’s Saul to follow this closing concert in the Festival residency of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, could be said to be ideal for such presentation, because it is all about the music, a sequence of set pieces for different combinations of singers, choruses and solo arias, and while undoubtedly political, not especially dramatic, so theatrical presentations of it are relatively rare.

This version’s sole concession to staging was in the costume of the women, a floaty off-the-shoulder number for Kim-Lillian Strebel as Marzelline and jeans and work-boots for Emma Bell as Leonore, disguised as the man of the title for the duration of the story. Already a singspiel, with spoken German text, the addition of Sir David Pountney’s English narrative, delivered by Sir Willard White from a desk at the front of the stage, made the whole tale easily comprehensible.

Completing a trio of cultural knights involved, conductor Sir Donald Runnicles was the perfect choice to martial all the forces on stage, a specialist in grand vocal music and always up for the big occasion. As an Edinburgh man, he was also one of the stars of the evening for a proper-sized EIF audience (at last), although White, who was doubling as Don Fernando, and Bell were cheered with equal enthusiasm.

Sir Donald Runnicles conducts this concert performance of Beethoven's only opera, telling a moving story of a wife's devotion and the resilience of human nature. Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Fidelio curtain call - credit Andrew PerryFidelio - conductor Sir Donald Runnicles embraces soprano Emma Bell, picture by Andrew Perry

The English soprano was a late substitute for Jennifer Davis, and she sang magnificently, from her first solo Abscheulicher! through to the work’s heady quintet and choral climax. In a luxury line-up of soloists, with American Clay Hilley as her imprisoned husband Florestan and German Markus Bruck as Don Pizarro, it was Austrian bass Gunther Groissbock who took the other honours as Rocco, a huge characterful voice matched by a big personality.

The chorusmaster of the orchestra’s professional choir, Philharmonia Voices, is Aidan Oliver, who also directs the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and there were a few familiar local faces amongst the singers, but special mention should go to the two voices in the step-out roles of Florestan’s fellow prisoners, tenor Robert Lewis and bass Thomas Mole.