Hardly amenable to making compromises, Beethoven was about as ill-suited to the messy, contingent demands of the opera stage as a composer could be. Yet in many ways we revere him as the paradigmatic musical dramatist; we admire how his scores, even at their most abstract, seem to plot out implicit narratives of struggle and triumph. By the same token, his opera Fidelio can sometimes resemble a massive symphonic ode decked out with characters.
The real challenge in producing Fidelio involves not just meeting the taxing vocal demands of the principal roles, but also striving for a plausible balance between these two dimensions — the musical and the dramatic.
Seattle Opera’s current production, which opened over the weekend, opts for an intriguingly revisionist approach — in musical and dramatic choices alike — to the opera that the composer himself tirelessly revised. Not all of it works. Some of the libretto’s (text's) shortcomings remain irksome. But the production as a whole movingly affirms Beethoven’s message of defiant optimism.
It’s no surprise that Fidelio ranks among the most perennially “relevant” operas in the repertory. The argument for updating the setting is easily made — such updating has itself practically become a convention — since the core story that inspired Beethoven in the first place focuses on heroic resistance to the tyrannical abuse of power. It's a pattern that, as the composer no doubt foresaw, can never become passé, and is continually replayed each generation.
This time around, reviving and refining a staging first introduced at Seattle Opera in 2003 — shortly after the start of the Iraq War, director Chris Alexander and the design team have the opera play out in an all-too-recognizably contemporary prison camp. Robert Dahlstrom’s set of guard towers and barbed-wire prison fence looms with vigilant, Orwellian, high-tech menace. Meanwhile, Duane Schuler’s light design makes the dungeon’s darkness hauntingly visible; moments of oppressive illumination ironically foreshadow the eventual victory of Enlightenment. The costumes designed by Catherine Meacham Hunt create a dreary anonymity offset by a dramatic outburst of vivid, everyday colors when the chorus is joined by a large cast of Seattle Opera extras for the camp’s liberation.
Whatever the setting of Fidelio, its dramatic stakes are straightforward and simple.
Leonore disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, to enter a prison to search for her disappeared husband Florestan, an aristocrat and political prisoner. Florestan made himself an enemy of the prison’s director, Don Pizarro, by denouncing his corruption, and is thus being secretly held captive. Tipped that his superior is coming to investigate allegations of such power abuse, Pizarro resolves to kill Florestan and bury the evidence of his misdeeds. Leonore intervenes, thwarting the plan, and Pizarro is toppled in a finale of liberation and reunion.
In its basic outlines, Fidelio sounds like a standard, almost cartoonish depiction of good versus evil, of self-determination winning out over a thuggish dictator. But the opera introduces ambiguities which muddy that simplistic picture. (And for all Beethoven’s sympathies with the French Revolution, the original play that served as his source material was based on an episode from the Reign of Terror, with the aristocrats as victims.) Leonore is able to pursue her goal only by getting Rocco, the prison warden, to trust her — which means playing the role of his assistant Fidelio, whom Rocco’s daughter Marzelline wants to marry, rejecting her suitor Jaquino, who also works at the prison.
These characters introduce a comic subplot of misalliance and mistaken identity that, in the first act, is awkwardly nested within the story of Leonore’s heroic quest. Even more, Rocco, preoccupied with financial security, has clearly accommodated himself to his boss Pizarro’s corrupt tenure. Pizarro, for that matter, turns out to be a rather limited tyrant. The inspector who ends up arresting him is in fact an envoy of an enlightened leader and frees the prisoners in a general amnesty. It’s simply taken for granted somehow that Pizarro’s personal vendetta against Florestan is to be generalized into a regime of systematic evil.
Yet Beethoven uses the force of his music to sweep aside these dramatic incongruities. His score intensifies the two-dimensional characterizations of an unsatisfactory, much-revised libretto. And the remarkable eloquence of Beethoven’s musical language is given special prominence in the first striking revision of Seattle Opera’s production. It comes at the very start, when we hear the Leonore Overture No. 3 in place of the usual Fidelio Overture (the latter written for Beethoven’s final 1814 revision of the opera).
This isn’t just a musicological footnote. It represents a bold choice. The Leonore Overture No. 3 is effectively a miniature symphony more than twice the length of the brisk curtain-raiser the composer wrote to replace it. Leonore No. 3 compresses the essential drama that follows into such vivid musical terms that, as scholar Donald F. Tovey remarked, it threatens to “annihilate” the opening act.
But with conductor Asher Fisch at the helm, the overture serves to emphasize one of the glories of this production. The musical values are superlative. There’s much to admire in the well-placed details, the gradations of darkness and light, of despair and blazing triumph that Fisch elicits from the orchestra.
The rightness of the longer “Leonore No. 3” as overture becomes evident in the way Fischer establishes an aura of moral seriousness, of life-or-death stakes in this performance. This echoes on past the seeming frivolities of the domestic comedy that actually sets the plot in motion. Fisch consistently keeps the bigger picture in view, particularly in the carefully thought-out pacing of the opera’s climactic episodes.
Director Alexander suggests a theatrical analogue to the overture’s seriousness by introducing hints of Guantanamo as a backdrop, with screaming prisoners being dragged across stage and omnipresent guards peering from lookouts, while the warden's daughter Marzelline waters the family garden and imagines her love idyll with Fidelio.
Anya MatanoviÄ brings an added note of passion to Marzelline. She plays not just a girlish soprano coquette fickly rejecting the hapless Jaquino (sung with a dash of petulance by John Tessier), but a woman whose education parallels that of Leonore. By the final scene, her eyes have clearly been opened.
As Leonore/Fidelio, German soprano Christiane Libor makes an exciting and memorable U.S. stage debut. Her voice has tremendous dimension and volume, with a thrilling, steely strength at the top (despite some slight insecurity of intonation under stress). The direction seems unclear about her sense of purpose in the very first scenes, when she appears to half-heartedly go along with the ruse of being Marzelline’s fiancé. But Libor touches on the various levels of her character, from fear and rage to utopian hope, in her magnificent aria “Komm, Hoffnung.”
Alexander adds an effective visual to clinch Leonore’s heroism in the final scene as she tosses away the shackles that had bound her husband. Yet in his staging she remains oddly timid, even passive, for whole stretches as the tension mounts in the second act, while she and Rocco follow Pizarro's orders to prepare a grave for the unnamed prisoner in solitary. This is, of course, none other than Florestan. But the pivotal moment when Beethoven shows Leonore deciding to aid the man she hasn't yet recognized ("whoever you may be!") — when she realizes her mission isn't just about saving her husband and determines to oppose an even larger injustice — barely registers in Alexander's static direction here.
Sunday’s matinee featured Marcy Stronikas — splendid as the icy heroine in the alternate cast of the season opener, Turandot — singing her only performance of Leonore in this production. Stronikas gave an impressive rendition of a role that is unforgivingly strenuous, both vocally and emotionally, bringing a powerful charge to her reunion duet with Florestan.
Though he appears only in the second act, Florestan is a similarly punishing role to pull off. Tenor Clifton Forbis (who sang Tristan here in 2010) has the goods, bringing out the emotional extremities of his long monologue, which is thought by some to represent a self-portrait of Beethoven in his deafness. Forbis deploys his large, hard-grained tenor with imaginative coloring and phrasing. In Sunday’s cast, young tenor Ric Furman (also in his only performance in this production) was a poignant Florestan, even if he sang with considerably less variety of color, believably embodying the broken-down prisoner of conscience who is finally rallied by the love of his wife.
With his thunderous bass-baritone, Greer Grimsley makes for an imposing, authoritarian Pizarro, a contemporary Mephisto in a dapper suit who rages with paranoia and tries to use the system to enforce his will. An especially notable revision of this Fidelio involves the character of the warden Rocco, whose cosy complicity in an evil system is dialed down. With his warm, paternal bass, Arthur Woodley plays up the likeable dad who only wants what he believes is best for daughter Marzelline. Fidelio’s behavior helps open his eyes to what he has been denying with the aid of his ever-plentiful flask of liquor.
Fidelio includes two of the most powerful choral scenes in all of opera — one in each act. As prepared by John Keene, the Seattle Opera Chorus makes up for some missed opportunities in the Prisoners’ Chorus with an incandescently joyful choral finale that sweeps away all memory of oppression.
If you go: Seattle Opera’s production of Fidelio runs through October 27 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., (206) 389-7676.