Insula Orchestra presents Fidelio at the Barbican on its European tour

Sinéad Campbell-Wallace singing Leonora in a Insula’s new production of Fidelio

In a special one-nighter, Paris-based orchestra, Insula, performed its new, semi-staged production of Fidelio at the Barbican this week. Insula’s stop-off in London was part of Insula’s European tour, which ends in a staged version of the opera in Paris’s new concert hall, La Seine Musicale on 14th, 16th and 18th May

In opera, semi-staged can mean as little as a couple of props. This was the route followed at the Barbican venue, allowing us to fully focus on the orchestra and stellar line-up of singers.

A full orchestra filled the stage with conductor, Laurence Equilbey. The singers came on in costume, arranged themselves around the front and side of the musicians. Some would weave through the middle of the orchestra further on into the opera, during moments of high drama. A bunch of rattly chains were laid out front of stage, reminding us that this was a prison drama.

In these conditions, it was surprising how quickly one adapts to the absence of scenery. This was due to the power of the drama – and the singers of course.

We are launched straight into the story of Leonora, whose husband, Florestan is incarcerated in a fortress prison with days to live. Leonora’s efforts to find her husband prompts her to disguise herself as a man, Fidelio, and to work for the chief jailor, Rocco. The trouble is, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline is in love with Fidelio (Leonora in disguise). Rocco wants Fidelio to marry Marzelline. Leonora cannot reveal her identity as a woman without giving her mission away to free her husband. She must keep Rocco sweet, keep Marzelline at arm’s length (not easy – she’s very insistent) and figure out a way to release her husband who is at death’s door.

In the absence of staging it falls to the singers to dramatise their story well through voice and body, supported by the orchestra. 

It’s a long time since I’ve seen such an evenly balanced and well-melded troupe of singers. There was undoubtably a star on the night. Irish soprano, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace excelled in the demanding role, where she was singing on stage for most of the time. Campbell-Wallace has successfully engineered a comeback in her operatic career after children by remodelling her soprano voice to suit heftier roles such as Leonora. She proved phenomenal, convincing in her ‘male’ vocals as Fidelio in the middle and lower register, and when her voice rose to express her feminine persona, it opened both naturally and royally. Leonora is  a role she has mastered, singing it for Irish National Opera in the past year. 

Rocco, the mild-mannered, angst-ridden janitor, was beautifully observed and sung by German bass, Christian Immler. His growing feelings of doubt and guilt towards the prisoners, were movingly expressed in song, and the meetings between him and despot, Don Pizzaro, (brilliantly acted by Sebastian Holecek), were tense and energising. 

The ensemble singing was seamless – the ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ quartet, Act 1, retaining all its purity and poignancy. Fidelio is replete with ravishing duets, quartets, and quintets – and the Prisoners’ Chorus, sung by the excellent Accentus choir (Laurence Equilbey’s brainchild) was one of the great highlights of the evening. It also brought the audience back to the humanistic aspect of the opera.

By coming in at the beginning of Act II, Leonore’s husband, Florestan, comes late into the opera, which heightens the suspense.

I had heard many good things about tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac, singing the role of Florestan. He does have a great tenor, although I am sure this opera doesn’t display all his technique to the full. However, I did see the drama he can create around him. We hear undefined animal cries. We’re not sure where they’re coming from. They grow louder and you realise it’s de Barbeyrac’s anguished voice – “Gott” he eventually sings at top volume. In his ragged clothes, he stumbles through the orchestra with his chains, lolloping along in time with the orchestral strings, and throws himself down exhausted at Laurence Equilbey’s conducting rostrum. Wonderful to see a singer really live the part!

Also worth mentioning were tenor, Patrick Grahl as Jacquino, who impressed with his comic style and wonderful diction, and young Hélène Carpentier’s pure lyrical soprano, singing Marzelline.

Under Laurence Equibey’s baton, the orchestra revealed all of Beethoven’s beautiful, hard fought score, which plays in your head for days.

Hope to see more of Insula and its projects in London in the future. Also, to visit the much talked about Seine Musicale concert venue in Paris.

The Paris production of ‘Fidelio’ will be staged by David Bobée, famed for his innovative use of video and lighting. If you hurry – you may find a seat on one of the three nights at The Seine Musicale Paris 14th, 16th and 18thMay 2022 .


La Seine Musicale ‘Fidelio’

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