A “Fidelio” for Our Time, A Triumph of Humanity

October 16, 2012

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Fidelio : Seattle Opera, soloists, Asher Fisch (conductor), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 13 & 14.10.2012 (BJ)

Cast:

Marzelline: Anya Matanovič
Jaquino: John Tessier
Rocco: Arthur Woodley
Leonore: Christiane Libor/Marcy Stonikas
Don Pizarro: Greer Grimsley
First Prisoner: Theo Lebow
Second Prisoner: Matthew Scollin
Florestan: Clifton Forbis/Ric Furman
Don Fernando: Kevin Short

Production:

Chris Alexander (director)
Robert Dahlstrom (set design)
Catherine Meacham Hunt (costumes)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup)
John Keene (chorus master)
John Keene, Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, Jay Rozendaal (musical preparation)

 

Which do you prefer, gold or silver? Those are the words traditionally used to designate, respectively, the first-night cast in Seattle Opera productions, and the singers – usually less famous and less far advanced in their careers – that replace them for a minority of the subsequent performances.

Making her US operatic debut in the Saturday-night opening of this revived Chris Alexander production of Fidelio, German soprano Christiane Libor, as Leonore, garnered a rave review in the Seattle Times, where Clifton Forbis’s Florestan was also highly praised. To my ears, however, the two were handily outshone by Marcy Stonikas and Ric Furman, who replaced them on Sunday afternoon for just one performance.

Ms Libor is the owner of a formidable reputation, so I can only conclude that she was having an uncharacteristically bad night. She seemed curiously subdued in both dramatic and vocal respects. The voice hardly ever rang out well – until the final scene, where she did indeed produce some strong and cleanly focused tone – and there was a deal of questionable intonation in her singing, especially in the concluding section of “Komm, Hoffnung.”

In the “Namenlose Freude” duet, moreover, her Florestan completely overpowered her. Forbis’s theater-filling Heldentenor has an attractive baritonal tinge to it, and I admired him greatly as Seattle’s Tristan two years ago, but on Fidelio’s opening night he poured it out with seemingly little thought for balance and proportion – there was plenty of power, but not a lot of beauty.

Nor were the two particularly convincing in their projection of this enthralling drama. It takes a certain kind of personal magnetism to make – without undignified mugging – an impression on stage when you are not actually singing. On Sunday, in addition to singing radiantly, Ms Stonikas – a former participant in Seattle Opera’s Young Artists program – exerted that magnetism to moving effect, whereas Ms Libor seemed often to be merely standing around. And Sunday’s Florestan, Ric Furman – originally engaged merely as the role’s cover – may not rival Forbis’s sheer vocal heft, but along with a mellifluous tone better suited to the role’s early-19th-century writing, he demonstrated a much more beguiling sense of dynamic shading, and he was thoroughly compelling in his evocation first of utter despair and eventually of exultant joy.

When I first saw a restaging of Alexander’s Fidelio in Portland four years ago, it completely overcame my firm prejudice against updated opera productions. With rare success, he has transferred the action of Fidelio to our own time. Unlike many similar efforts with other operas, this works, because the story of what Donald Tovey described as “in Germany, the opera to which every right-thinking married couple goes on the anniversary of their wedding” is a story of universal import, with social trappings that are inconsequential. Watching the production that Alexander originally created for Seattle Opera in those heady days just after Barack Obama’s election as president, I found it impossible not to see its restoration of civil liberties in contemporary terms (and it was a little anxious-making to revisit it now, with another election just in the offing).

Robert Dahlstrom’s set, Catherine Meacham Hunt’s costumes, and Duane Schuler’s lighting all played crucial parts in the production’s gripping verisimilitude. The only moment that didn’t work well in this Seattle revival came with the confrontation between Leonore and Pizarro in the dungeon. It was dramatically unconvincing, because with a pistol instead of the libretto’s dagger in hand Pizarro would surely have blown Leonore away long before she brought out her own weapon.

(Perhaps the resulting tableau, of Leonore holding a pistol to Pizarro’s head while he holds one to Florestan’s head, too vividly arousing associations with Victorian melodrama, may be blamed for the wholly inappropriate burst of laughter and applause that the moment drew from the audience. But laughter greeted several other deeply serious passages too, including even Jaquino’s entry in the famous Canon Quartet. Just as when I have encountered the same phenomenon at the Count’s “Contessa, perdono” in Le nozze di Figaro – one of the most profoundly moving things in all of Mozart – I find it hard to comprehend what the audience members who perpetrate it think they are witnessing.)

Two of the central roles in Seattle’s revival were in the capable hands of the same singers as they were in Portland. Greer Grimsley is a wonderfully and credibly vicious Don Pizarro, and Arthur Woodley a sympathetic Rocco. Another former Seattle Opera Young Artist, Anya Matanovič, made an exceptionally charming Marzelline, singing with crystalline and surprisingly substantial tone, and John Tessier, the Jaquino, was equally convincing as her spurned suitor. A subtle and moving touch, after Marzelline discovers that her adored Fidelio is actually a woman and Jaquino tentatively takes her hand, was Matanovič’s tiny but firm negative shake of the head. Theo Lebow and Matthew Scollin sang the first and second prisoners’ lines with conviction, and Kevin Short was a strong-voiced and dignified Don Fernando.

Both in the mordantly emotive prisoners’ chorus and in the work’s spirit-lifting final scene, Seattle Opera’s chorus, trained on this occasion by John Keene, covered themselves with glory. Incidentally, the text of that finale raises a point that I think worth mentioning. Beethoven is often credited with championing the cause of universal human brotherhood. In some ways, that belief may well be justified – but the reality reflected in his music is less simple. In the opera’s conclusion, it is “He who has won a beloved wife” that is invited to “join in our rejoicing.” Similarly, in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, the corresponding passage urges: “He who has won a sweet wife, let him join his exultation with ours.” So – not just everybody qualifies! (There is perhaps an analogy to be drawn here with the Mass text that is often translated as “Peace and goodwill towards men,” but that actually means “Peace to men of goodwill.”)

Asher Fisch conducted with total conviction and the orchestra responded with thrilling and often notably sensitive playing, even if, on Sunday afternoon, the ensemble in the finale seemed for a moment or two to be taking freedom a bit far. The horns – a forgivable fluff or two aside – coped well with their taxing parts. Ben Hausmann played his important oboe solos beautifully, and the strings, headed by the Seattle Symphony’s new concertmaster, Alexander Velinzon, provided a richly sonorous underpinning to the orchestral sound.

Instead of the Fidelio overture that Beethoven composed for the much-revised final version of the work originally titled Leonore, Fisch elected to begin with the grander Leonore Overture No. 3. This made for an interestingly different initial impact, and it was sensibly coupled with a reversal of the first two vocal numbers: Marzelline’s aria now preceded, instead of following, her duet with Jaquino. This, the order of events in Leonore, usefully reduced the sense of anticlimax inevitable if the glorious coda of Leonore No. 3 gives place to the duet’s cosily domestic atmosphere.

About another musical idea that has, I believe, been part of the production from the start I am in two minds. In Act I, the march that accompanies Pizarro’s entrance is heard in a recorded version played back through the house audio system. The resulting deliberately denatured sound certainly jibes with the production’s emphasis on the totalitarian context of the story, but I regret not hearing one of the most arresting numbers in the piece in its full sonorous power.

In any adequate performance of Fidelio, though, the message that must shine through is the humanity of the story. In that regard, after all the telling details mustered in the first act and a half, the playing of the final scene ranks as one of Alexander’s most brilliant inspirations. The sight of that motley assemblage of ex-prisoners and their families milling around the stage, many of them thrusting photographs before each others’ eyes in the effort to find their own long-missing loved ones, was tonic to the spirit. I said it already after the Portland performance, but I have to say it again: I cried a lot.

Bernard Jacobson

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