A POLITICAL prisoner lies in chains in the darkest deepest dungeon of a forbidding prison. His name is never spoken; the prison governor has ordered that he is given less food each day. He will shortly be murdered in his cell and the body hidden in a well.
It is a scene that has been played out across the world and over the centuries, from the cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition to the barbarities of Stalin’s purges, from Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers to the horrors of Pinochet’s ruthless regime in Chile. People disappear and those brave enough to try to find and rescue them face terrifying odds.
Director Laurence Dale, and his designer Steve Howell and costume designer Gabriella Ingram have placed the Dorset Opera production of Fidelio in a setting that evokes Orwell’s 1984, with warders and prisoners alike desexed and depersonalised in drab shapeless grey clothes, while the governor (the charismatic Mark S Doss) exuding brutal power in black leather, and surrounded by similarly leather-clad henchmen.
Beethoven’s only opera is dark, with its story of Florestan (Jonathan Stoughton) an honourable man imprisoned and condemned to death for telling the truth, a theme that still resonates in the 21st century. But the horrors are vanquished and freedom triumphs – in this production with the released prisoners and townsfolk waving the flags of the United Nations, the European Union, England, France and Germany.
The opera revolves around his wife, Leonore, who has disguised herself as Fidelio, a young man who has been taken on as assistant by the senior prison warder Rocco (a humane and even humorous performance by Gary Jankowski).
Fidelio is determined to discover the prisoner in the lowest dungeon – and if it is Florestan, somehow find a way to rescue him.
Lee Bissett brought searing passion to Beethoven’s beautiful music, giving a convincing performance both as Fidelio, the sensitive and kindly prison guard and as Leonore, the courageous wife.
There was great work from the chorus, directed by Nicolas Mansfield, and the orchestra, conducted by Phillip Thomas thoroughly deserved the loud applause for its playing, from the famous overture through to the triumphant finale.
Excellent lighting, by Charlie Morgan Jones, created an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere, pierced by shafts of light, as Florestan has his vision of an angel (Leonore) leading him to freedom.
Fidelio may not be an easy opera, nor as familiar as Verdi or Puccini favourites, but the audience packed into a steaming hot Coade Hall responded to this excellent production with enthusiasm and cheers.
It is another triumph for Dorset Opera Festival, in its 40th anniversary year.