Heartbeat Opera’s heroic, harrowing Fidelio hits the road

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Band / Daniel Schlosberg (arranger & conductor). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 12.2.2022. (RP)

Kelly Griffin (Leah/Lee) © Russ Rowland

Director – Ethan Heard
New English dialogue – Marcus Scott & Ethan Heard
Movement director & Fight choreographer – Nigel Semaj
Sets – Reid Thompson
Costumes – Valérie Thérèse Bart & Kara Branch
Lighting – Oliver Watson
Sound – Kate Marvin
Projections – Caite Hevner

Roc – Derrell Acon
Stan – Curtis Bannister
Leah/Lee – Kelly Griffin
Marcy – Victoria Lawal
Pizarro – Corey McKern

Choruses: Oakdale Community Choir, Kuji Men’s Chorus, Ubuntu Men’s Chorus, Hope Thru Harmony Women’s Choir, East Hill Singers, Voices of Hope

Heartbeat Opera’s reimagining of Beethoven’s Fidelio has the political bite that Beethoven’s only opera had from the beginning. Its premiere in 1805 was hardly a success: the opera’s length was a factor, but another was that Vienna, where the performance took place, was occupied by Napoleon’s forces. The French had little interest in German opera in general, let alone one in which love triumphs over tyranny.

In the twentieth century, Fidelio was co-opted for political purposes by all sides. During World War II, the Nazis apparently didn’t perceive the irony in staging it while slaughtering millions of people. Toscanini led a performance in 1944 that was the first ever radio broadcast of a full-length opera in America, and in October 1989, the premiere of a new production in Dresden coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the founding of East Germany. The chorus appeared on stage in street clothes at the end of the opera in a show of solidarity with the demonstrations that were rocking the country at that time. The Berlin Wall tumbled within a few weeks.

An artistic and critical triumph when first staged in 2018, the Heartbeat’s original production was in part a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. For the revival, Ethan Heard, Heartbeat’s artistic director, together with playwright Marcus Scott, reworked the English-language dialogue, streamlined the action and altered the ending. This Fidelio doesn’t end with a triumphant, celebratory chorus as Beethoven’s opera does.

Beethoven, however, would recognize the setting of Heartbeat’s production: prisons haven’t changed much over the centuries. This one just happens to be in the USA with a warden, Donnie Pizarro (smugly characterized and richly sung by Corey McKern), who is corrupt and brutal. The entire prison population is in lockdown. Stan, a civil rights activist, did an exposé on Pizarro that almost brought him down. Now Stan has been framed, incarcerated and is slowly being starved to death in solitary confinement.

Curtis Bannister (Stan) © Russ Rowland

Heard recasts Leonore as Leah, portrayed by the fierce and wonderful Kelly Griffin. Leah is trying to work within the system to free her husband, but the underfunded and overstretched public defenders’ office deems the case a loser. In a dream, she becomes Lee, a prison guard intent on rescuing Stan. Griffin soared through ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’, displaying with her fine soprano Lee’s steely determination to free Stan.

Lee is not above flirting with Marcy, a young Black prison administrator, to further her goal. Marcy is the daughter of Roc, a prison guard, who has been complicit in Pizarro’s dirty work in the past. Derrell Acon’s Roc is totally cool with his daughter being a lesbian, and he encourages her to date Lee. Roc is the most complex character on stage, and Acon makes him real and surprisingly endearing.

Victoria Lawal as Marcy is a bright, effervescent presence on stage, who effectively gives voice to the young woman’s professional and personal dilemmas. Marcy is front-and-center for the first few scenes but then disappears from the stage, which is a shame: there was unfinished business that deserved to be explored in Lawal’s Marcy.

Curtis Bannister as Stan is seen at the very beginning of the show but not heard until the end. The clarion sound of his tenor emerging from the dark is as startling as the physical jolt of the release of the energy coiled in his body at the moment he smells freedom. Bannister makes it clear why this opera is entitled Fidelio.

The set was basic, but nothing says prison like a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Lee and Roc’s descent into the prison’s subterranean depth on two rolling metal staircases was ingenious. The most elaborate stage equipment in the world could not have made it better.

Daniel Schlosberg, Heartbeat’s co-music director, is an amazing creative force. In his arrangement of Beethoven’s score, Schlosberg’s deep respect for the authentic is equaled by his ingenuity. He distilled Beethoven’s music to its essence with an ensemble of two French horns, two cellos, two pianos and percussion. The sounds – especially his clever writing for the percussion – were at once familiar yet fresh and exciting.

In Heartbeat’s Fidelio, the Prisoner’s Chorus provides a gut-wrenching experience. The recorded voices of more than 100 inmates and 70 volunteers from six prison choirs are heard as their faces are projected on a large white sheet. Schlosberg traveled to the prisons in Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Kansas to work with and record the singers.

The New York performances were the first in a four-city tour of Heartbeat’s Fidelio, originally scheduled for 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. The events of the last two years have only made the need for artistic voices such as Heartbeat Opera more urgent. This Fidelio is powerful stuff – heroic in fact.

Rick Perdian

For more information on Heartbeat Opera’s February 2022 tour, click here.

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