OPERA North’s concert version of Beethoven’s only opera arose from last year’s first Lockdown. This should have been the focal point of a rearranged Autumn 2020 season in Leeds and on tour. Lockdown (2) sadly scuppered these plans. Instead, the company streamed a single performance from an empty Leeds Town Hall, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. Press and media reviews were ecstatic.

Seven months on, a socially distanced audience of 300 shared, at long last, one of the great musical occasions of these challenging times. The opera’s disturbing undertones of political imprisonment, isolation, mental torture and the holding to account of those responsible, could have scarcely seemed more relevant.

Wigglesworth had been replaced at the helm of the Orchestra of Opera North by Paul Daniel who extracted every nuance and colour from the score. Exactly what we had all been craving for since March 2020.

The cast was otherwise unchanged from last December’s livestream. Soprano Rachel Nicholls brings a heroic Wagnerian quality to the title role of Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, a male prison guard. Leonore has vowed to free her husband, Florestan, from the murderous clutches of bass-baritone Robert Hayward’s malevolent prison governor Don Pizarro. Rocco, the sympathetic jailor, is beautifully characterised by the fruity sonorities of the bass Brindley Sherratt.

The strength and lyricism of the tenor Toby Spence, projects Florestan’s inner turmoil. His famous aria, Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier - God! What Darkness here - began with an awesome build-up of the word “Gott” from a whisper to a crescendo. Soprano Fleur Wyn as Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter and tenor Oliver Johnston as his assistant Jaquino are the ardent young lovers. Bass-baritone Matthew Stiff, as Don Fernando, is dressed in a black judicial gown. The Don’s spoken narration (in English) recounts events from his perspective as presiding judge at “The Court of Truth and Reconcilliation”.

The soloists sumptuously blend in the great ensembles and the Chorus of Opera North are on spine tingling form for the Prisoners’ Chorus and the jubilant Act ll Finale. Perhaps unavoidably, the covid-related two metre-spacing of the chorus unfortunately affected the clarity and focus of sound. It is though, a small price to pay for the return of a live audience.

Hearty congratulations to Opera North and the dedicated team at Leeds Town Hall for keeping the music going in these uncertain times.

There is just one more performance of Fidelio, at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall this Saturday, 19th June.

Geoffrey Mogridge