Rescue Mission

This is how Anke Hoeppner appeared when she played Leonore in Opera Queensland’s production of Fidelio in July. On Saturday night she sang the same role in the Sydney Opera House in a cocktail dress (or some such thing) from the corner of the stage while Nicole Youl, in costume, mimed the part on the stage and performed the spoken lines.

The Herald tells the story. No doubt the account is right as far as the background facts are concerned, but it misses most of the points that make it so amazing. The first is the glorious irony of being both the rescuer in, and the rescuer of, the greatest rescue opera. Adrian Colette, in his sheepish announcement from the stage, conspicuoulsy failed to explain why the understudy, whoever she was, was in Melbourne, so it’s a reasonable working hypothesis that Hoeppner rescued him from burial in a pile of rotten tomatoes, and perhaps even saved him his job.

The second point, not unrelated to the first, is that Leonore isn’t exactly Mary Poppins. There are probably only four people in this hemisphere who could perform the role at even a week’s notice, let alone an hour’s. Readers unfamiliar with the part can choose from a feast of You-tube clips to determine the degree of difficulty. This one with Gundula Janowitz is the pick of them: the sound quality leaves much to be desired, but it’s everything you could ask for in both the singing and acting departments.

The third and most important point, which might conceivably be lost on someone who wasn’t there, but ought not to go unremarked, was that Anke Hoeppner did a brilliant job. Not only did she sing beautifully, and hit all the top notes, but she put the whole opera theatre — performers and audience — at ease in what could have been a tense situation. She was completely relaxed, and indeed even appeared to be having fun (though maybe she was just laughing at her co-stars’ attempts at German). It must have been difficult, having just performed the role on stage, to find the right balance right between stealing the spotlight and being invisible. But find it she did.

Fidelio, in case anyone has overlooked the fact, happens to be the apotheosis of Western art — a glorious mass disguised as a melodrama, with haunting arias, uplifting choruses, transcendent ensemble pieces that equal if not surpass Mozart’s, and orchestral passages worthy of Beethoven’s own symphonies. This production by OA was a very satisfying one as far as the music and acting go. Conal Coad as Rocco, Peter Coleman-Wright as Pizarro and Julian Gavin as Florestan were all superb in their parts. (More on the production from Sarah Noble here and here.) But it’s a rather traditional staging, without too many surprises, so a twist like this with some real-life poignancy is actually quite welcome, as long as it doesn’t happen too often.

That was the last performance. If you missed it, console yourself with a mesmerising rendition of Ha! welch ein Augenblick by George Clooney in his previous career as an operatic baritone.

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12 years ago

Interesting, James. A strange situation, but not unheard of (cf. Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo). Happily I will be seeing Fidelio in Vienna in a couple of months (eat your heart out :)).

I enjoyed ‘Clooney’. Who’d have thought?

James Farrell
12 years ago

Thanks, Rob. A comment from you makes it all worthwhile! Enjoy Vienna.