Beethoven’s FIDELIO is extremely difficult to sing, especially for its two central characters: Leonore and Florestan. When it comes to Joseph Sonnleithner’s libretto of Fidelio, its inconsistencies make the staging of this opera a daunting task.

The spectacularly good ROYAL OPERA HOUSE production, available on an OPUS ARTE DVD boasts an excellent cast, led by the superb Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen and the terrific though relatively unknown English tenor David Butt Philip. The production succeeds on both the dramatic and musical levels.

American soprano Amanda Forsythe as Marzelline. German bass Georg Zeppenfeld as Rocco, British baritone Simon Neal as Don Pizarro, and English tenor Robin Tritschler as Jacquino sing so idiomatically and stylishly that they make one forget that truth to tell Ludwig van Beethoven did not write all that well for the human voice.

Rather than settling for realism in his approach to Fidelio, stage director Tobias Kratzer takes a boldly meta-theatrical approach to the opera, setting Act One in a political prison in a France still torn by internecine strife after the Revolution of 1789, and bringing Act Two up to the present day, in a setting in which – with no attempt at realism – the action takes place on a mound of dirt surrounded by a seated modern-day crowd that serves as a reflection and extension of ourselves. It is an extraordinary directorial choice that sets aside any melodramatic antics and powerfully highlights the universality of the story.

Kratzer obtains memorable performances from his cast: Lise Davidsen thinking herself alone undresses to get rid of the disguising straps that bind her breasts and is discovered by Marzelline – the vocally and dramatically superb Amanda Forsythe – who comes to discover that she is attracted to another woman. And it is Marzelline who shoots Don Pizarro as he is about to stab Leonore.

Lise Davidsen joins here a long line of great Leonores. Her Abschuelicher, Wo Eilst Du Hin?  is simply beyond fault, filled with emotion yet with Davidsen completely in command of the vocal mine field Beethoven wrote for his lead soprano.

David Butt Philip, the Florestan, is as good a dramatic tenor as many others older and more seasoned than him. The young Brit is both a good actor and a good singer, and he cuts a handsome figure, even in rags and in need of a bath and shave.

Georg Zeppenfeld’s lovely lyric bass is perfect for the part of Rocco. Simon Neal’s Don Pizarro is evil incarnate without resorting to histrionics, and his Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick! makes a chilling impression. Robin Tritschler’s Jacquino is very good vocally and comically convincing. Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins delivers a well sung Don Fernando

The chorus is deeply moving in their Act One scene, and the Royal Opera Orchestra, always a thing of wonder, is here especially fine, exquisitely paced by Sir Antonio Pappano, a maestro who injects every bar of Beethoven’s score with impassioned intensity.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS