As beauty ruled supreme: Dudamel and the LA Phil’s moving and meaningful Fidelio

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Fidelio: Soloists, Deaf West Theatre (Los Angeles), Coro de Manos Blancas (White Hands Choir, Venezuela), Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana, Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Los Angeles Philharmonic / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 3.6.2024. (AK)

Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel perform Fidelio © Ash Knotek/Barbican

Director – Alberto Alvero
Co-director – Joaquin Solano
Artistic producer – Gabriela Camejo
Costume designer – Solange Mendoza
Lighting designers – Tyler Glover and Tyler Lambert-Perkins
Sign language choreographer – Colin Analco
Assistant language choreographer – Bridget Berrigan

Leonora – Tamara Wilson (soprano), Amelia Hensley (actor)
Florestan – Andrew Staples (tenor), Daniel Durant (actor)
Rocco – James Rutherford (bass-baritone), Hector Reynoso (actor)
Marzelline – Gabriella Reyes (soprano), Sophia Morales (actor)
Jaquino – David Portillo (tenor), Otis Jones (actor)
Don Pizzaro – Shenyang (bass-baritone), Giovanni Maucere (actor)
Don Fernando – Patrick Blackwell (bass-baritone), Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant (actor)

Founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Venezuelan educator, musician, and activist José Antonio Abreu, the El Sistema music program catered for disadvantaged youth with the motto ‘Music for Social Change’.

Gustavo Dudamel, born into a musician family in 1981, experienced the power of music for integration when, at the age of 18, he was appointed Music Director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra, consisting of graduates of the El Sistema program.

The importance of social change and integration through music has entered Dudamel’s DNA; one of the manifestations is his innovative project of involving deaf people into the art of opera.

For this Barbican Hall concert, a collaboration between the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deaf West Theatre (Los Angeles), El Sistema’s Coro de Manos Blancas (White Hands Choir, Venezuela, for deaf and hard-hearing children/adults) as well as two choirs from Catalan and Liceu respectively created a deeply moving and wholly absorbing staged presentation of Fidelio, composed by Beethoven by which time – according to our best knowledge – he was already deaf.

The rehearsal period for the Barbican performance included integration not only between hearing and deaf people but also between several spoken and signed languages.

Fidelio is in German, the participating groups spoke/signed in English, American English (ASL: the signing of this is different from English signing), Venezuelan, Spanish and Catalan. At the most informative and fascinating Barbican pre-concert talk, eight translators signed simultaneously to make sure everybody’s full integration. However, at the actual performance the unified international sign language was used.

The performance was aimed for both deaf and hearing audiences. This aspiration included supplying usual operatic surtitles but with the addition of comments such as ‘musical intro’, ‘march’ etc. when singing/signing stopped during purely orchestral passages. I am not sure why such comments were necessary: the audience (deaf and hearing) could see when singers and deaf actors stopped singing/signing and when people on the stage were marching. However, comments like ‘knocking’ when indicated only by orchestral music were wholly justified.

Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel perform Fidelio © Ash Knotek/Barbican

With skilful arrangement, Barbican Hall’s stage can accommodate operatic performances although – with the orchestra in full sight – the description ‘semi-staged’ may be more appropriate. To facilitate space for the singers/actors, on this occasion the orchestra seems to have used slightly reduced strings from its regular symphony size. However, as mentioned at the pre-concert talk, during some periods of the performance two hundred people were on stage.

At any given time, singers – whether soloists or the choir – had their deaf counterpart actors with them on stage. The distribution of space between the singer/actor pairs varied from scene to scene. Sometimes they stood next to each other, other times at different parts of the stage: there was fluidity in spacing, always in line with music and text.

The signed interpretation took note of musical tempi/sounds/phrases. It seems to me that either the deaf actors memorised the rhythm of the Beethoven’s score or they followed the conductor. For sure, long-held musical notes were represented by long-held body pauses, fast music was also interpreted by corresponding body movements by the highly skilled deaf actors. Signing was more than just translating the sung text: there was choreography of emotions, mostly beautifully expressed. My guest commented that the body language of deaf actors reminded him of silent films. It so happens that at the pre-concert talk – which my guest did not attend – Adorno was quoted as saying that opera is the film of the nineteenth century. Indeed, we were back in the nineteenth century, that is in Beethoven’s time, in more ways than one.

Recitatives/dialogues in the score were either cut or were performed in silence by the signing actors. Silence thus became an integral part of the opera, as it became integral in Beethoven’s life. By and large, solo singers did not act, mostly (although not always) stood and delivered their arias as it was the custom of older times. However, at specific moments, singing/signing pairs touchingly communicated with each other, even hugged (like the Leonora and Florestan pairs respectively).

The solo singers wore white robes, their signing counterparts wore various other colours. This colour contrast was also manifested in the costumes of the various choirs (deaf or hearing). The prisoners’ choir included women too (although I cannot remember if they were signing actors or female voices who were added to Beethoven’s tenor and bass prisoner choir).

My focus was not on the musical aspect, I was somewhat mesmerised by the staging. However, most probably I would have noticed if anything was wrong musically. And I did notice that the ever-reliable tenor Andrew Staples brought in Florestan’s high G note on his first entrance with total security, as if it was just normal to be cooped up on stage for a considerable time and start singing with such a high and long-held note (Act II, Scene 1). In my former life as a cellist in an opera house I heard many tenors fall victim to this note.

I also noted the super professionalism of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, their rock-solid trumpet player (presumably Thomas Hooten) heralding the arrival of Don Fernando, first off stage then in full view on stage. No problems with any of the two singing choirs either, while the White Hands Choir was astonishing with their gentle side to side movements in perfect time with the music.

Dudamel’s tempi felt just right, the quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ (Act I, Scene 4) was as gentle as beautiful. I also think, although I might have not seen it correctly, that Dudamel conducted the whole opera from memory, with admirable full control of all singers, all actors, all choruses.

This staging might have represented a new form that is ‘deaf opera’ but I (with full hearing) have never experienced such a moving and meaningful presentation of Fidelio: full integration was achieved and beauty ruled supreme.

Agnes Kory

1 thought on “As beauty ruled supreme: Dudamel and the LA Phil’s moving and meaningful <i>Fidelio</i>”

  1. What a heartfelt rendition of amazing soul-driven power.
    Dudamel maybe leaves LA but not the uniqueness of his memorized scores and power to direct multiple layers of voices and instrumentation.
    May his future journey always complete the audience’s senses.
    I am lucky to live in Los Angeles.


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