Sensational Singing in Concert Fidelio

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, orchestra and chorus of San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Ragnar Bohlin (chorus conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 26.6.2015 (HS)

Leonore: Nina Stemme
Marzelline: Joélle Harvey
Florestan: Brandon Jovanovich
Jacquino: Nicholas Phan
Don Pizarro: Alan Held
Rocco: Kevin Langan
Don Fernando: Luca Pisaroni
First Prisoner: Matthew Newlin
Second Prisoner: Craig Verm


Capping an impressive month of Beethoven orchestral works at Davies Symphony Hall, an ideal cast sealed the deal with spectacular singing in the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged performance of the opera Fidelio. “Semi-staged” may be generous. Minimally staged might be more like it, with the singers in mostly black, no scenery or projections, unlike a much more electorate staging of Missa Solemnis, which launched the month of Beethoven.

Seen and heard Friday (the second of four) this was not the most incisive orchestral performances, either. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led a literal outing, basically letting Beethoven’s music unfold without trying to paper over awkward passages or transitions. If the precision and insights never quite reached the level that informed other evenings this month, it was an effective foil for the brilliant singers.

In the spotlight, they came through big-time, especially soprano Nina Stemme as Leonore, who spends most of the opera in men’s clothing as the boy jailer assistant, Fidelio, and tenor Brandon Jovanovich, in an incendiary tour-de-force as Florestan, her husband jailed as political prisoner. Those two were last seen together here in San Francisco in Brünnhide and Siegfried in the San Francisco Opera’s 2011 staging of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen. If anything, their work here was even more heroic.

Stemme, in pants suit and heels, raised the roof with a canny amalgam of power and finesse in her character’s great arias, especially the Act I paean of hope, “Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern.” Jovanovich, in tight-fitting black T-shirt, looked decidedly not gaunt as the half-starved prisoner but he unleashed an unholy crescendo from a soft croon to explosive multiple-forte on “Gott!”, the character’s first utterance as he raises from the jail floor to begin Act II. The entire aria (“Welch Dunkel hier!”) was a study in majesty under duress. The Act II love duet, “O namenlose Freude!” intertwined their supple voices and increased the intensity to seismic levels.

Soprano Joélle Harvey (last heard in the Missa Solemnis) was Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter who falls for Fidelio even though the young but callow Jacquino (tenor Nicholas Phan) pants for her. Holding an open score probably took something away from Harvey’s portrayal but vocally she was all sweetness and precision, riding the peaks of ensembles with ease. Phan established a puppy-dog impression, singing with lovely legato.

Bass Kevin Langan, a veteran of countless comprimario roles across the street at the opera house, lent equal parts bonhomie and gravitas to his supple-voiced Rocco, the jailer with a soft heart. Bass-baritone Alan Held, his head shaved (to make him looks more menacing?), lent solid sound and a strong presence to Pizzarro, the tyrant prison governor who has squirreled Florestan away for revealing embarrassing truths about him. In a classic case of luxury casting, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni appeared in the final scene as the King’s minister Don Fernando, foiling Pizzarro’s attempted murder of Florestan at the last minute and lavishing the character’s music with nobility it requires.

In ensembles, the voices melded seamlessly, most notably in the floating Act I quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar,” and in the big finale, where the San Francisco Symphony Chorus brought the proceedings to a joyful climax. In Act I, the men of the chorus lent remarkable point and precision to the prisoners’ emergence into the light for a brief break from their cells.

Harvey Steiman

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