United States Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Eun Sun Kim (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 14.10.2021. (HS)
Director – Matthew Ozawa
Sets and Projection – Alexander V. Nichols
Costumes – Jessica Jahn
Lighting – JAX Messenger, Justin A. Partier
Chorus director – Ian Robertson
Fight director – Dave Maier
Leonore – Elza van den Heever
Florestan – Russell Thomas
Don Pizarro – Greer Grimsley
Rocco – James Creswell
Don Fernando – Soloman Howard
Marzelline – Anne-Marie MacIntosh
Jaquino – Christopher Oglesby
First Prisoner – Zhengyi Bai
Second Prisoner – Stefan Egerstrom
San Francisco Opera’s long-awaited production of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, rests on the universal aspects of the story’s fight against oppression, a cast that inhabits every role with distinction and glorious conducting from Eun Sun Kim in her first full season as the company’s music director.
Political incarceration remains with us to this day. Those who speak the truth to oppressive power still risk everything, and the idea that love can conquer such ugliness is the stuff of great opera. Director Matthew Ozawa’s set makes these ideas relevant with a stage-filling, rotating cube that evokes the jail-like cages of immigrant detainees, and costumes that portray characters in the way they might fit into today’s culture.
The production, meant to open the company’s season last year but shelved by the pandemic, greeted a live audience at the War Memorial Opera House with a projected image on the front scrim of Leonore facing away from us. During the overture, this image ever-so-gradually turned to face us, only to morph before our eyes into Fidelio, dressed as a modern-day guard, complete with baseball hat and bulletproof vest.
When we first meet Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter, she is shown not folding laundry but rather helping her father by handling office chores. Jaquino, her limp suitor, seems to have earned the disdain of the other office workers.
Russell Thomas, who portrays the hidden-away prisoner, Florestan, is black, which added another layer of meaning, alluding to the oft-cited preponderance of black people incarcerated today in America. Pizarro, the political functionary who has imprisoned Florestan for calling out his misdeeds, swans about in a business suit but carries a knife and pistol. At the end, a press gaggle greets Don Fernando, the government minister who saves the day, and Florestan is freed thanks to the bravery of his wife.
Beethoven’s music brings all this together with a strong strain of revolutionary spirit, once it gets into the rescue drama. I must admit this is the first time in the many occasions I have experienced this opera that I made the connection between the shaky expressions of love in the light-hearted domestic scenes in Act I and the grander, grittier passions of Leonore and Florestan at the end. My failing, perhaps, but credit this performance for bringing it forward. The production also dispenses with the usual insertion of the Leonore Overture No.3 between scenes in Act II, which put more emphasis on the story.
From moment to moment, Kim found just the right dynamics, shadings and pace in the pit. The orchestra, except for a few fleeting occasions that didn’t quite sync as they should, sounded rich and glowed with resonance. The prisoner’s chorus in Act I began with a threadlike hush in the orchestra and gradually built to an exultant joy, only to recede into a poignant silence. The introduction to Florestan’s Act II aria pulsed with a mix of anger and despair. Sensational sound from the orchestra, principals and chorus made the finale blaze as brightly as the visual brightness that even brought up the house lights at the climax.
South African Elza van den Heever’s polished soprano wrapped itself around Leonore’s music, caressing the intimate moments with soft edges and delivering ensemble-topping lines with power that never showed strain. In her guard’s clothing, she displayed a masculine sense of camaraderie, talking the jailer into cutting the prisoners some breaks. James Creswell used his smoothly tailored bass and sociable demeanor to portray Rocco as a regular guy, attentive to the other singers and on point with the orchestra.
Thomas invested Florestan with a heroic tenor, not quite as loud or muscular as some but musically focused and majestically shaped. The staging confined him in a locked room in the sub-basement of the jail: appropriate enough, but flashing projections on the wall behind him clashed with the libretto’s words about darkness and dankness. His presence was enough to convey his plight.
Canadian soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh played the adorable blonde secretary to a T, and she delivered her music with more richness and style than the perkiness we often hear from Marzelline. Her fellow Adler Fellow, Christopher Oglesby, revealed a pleasing tenor as Jaquino.
Greer Grimsley, last heard here as Wotan in the 2019 Ring, lent gravitas and a pliant bass-baritone to Pizarro, the evil prison governor. His entrance aria stamped the character as a slimy political functionary, and his scenes with Rocco underlined that. Bass Soloman Howard was an elegant Don Fernando, the government functionary bringing the much-anticipated reprieve of Florestan in the final scene (and milking it for all it was worth).
The voices of Thomas and van den Heever invested their reuniting duet with beautifully intertwining lines and emotional resonance after she confronted the evil Pizarro at gunpoint in time for her husband to be freed. Their part in the final duet made it even more of a highlight than it usually is, and her rock-solid intonation in trading off melodic lines with MacIntosh’s made the duet in Act I magical too.
The well-cast voices, a thoughtful staging that fit the piece’s intent and Kim’s command of the musical values lifted this whole endeavor into a winner. You can still catch livestreams of the 17 October matinee and 20 October evening performances at sfopera.com (click here).