Friday, July 8, 2016

Cincinnati Opera's grim, heroic 'Fidelio' displays commitment to its musical and dramatic meaning

Florestan and Leonore celebrate their reunion in the nick of time.
Quite open to updating opera as I am, there is usually a sacrifice or two, where an anachronism in the libretto leaps out as not quite suitable to the usually more modern setting the stage director has chosen.

To make "Fidelio" "today-ish," as scenic designer Robert Dahlstrom carefully put it Thursday before opening night of the Cincinnati Opera production, does not offend me.  But one consequence of stage director Chris Alexander's concept involves a discrepancy that's hard to swallow, of which more later.

A modern prison — with surveillance cameras and occasionally roving searchlights, video monitors and guards in SWAT-style uniforms — conveys the grim side of the maximum security state.

This is the domain of Don Pizarro, the opera's villain, and the trappings fully illustrate his despotic control. The set has a couple of huge, gray iron doors at the back, modeled on airplane hangar doors, which part when the prisoners are let out for a bit of fresh air in Act 1.

A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire is the barrier to the free outside world, which has the downstage feature of a flower bed tended by Marzelline, the jailer Rocco's daughter, at one side. At the other, there's the prison command center, with the technological gear of contemporary incarceration; when needed, that's replaced by Pizarro's office, a wall of metal file cabinets behind him.

There are a few minor discrepancies, which call attention to Dahlstrom's "-ish" suffix in describing the time we should imagine ourselves in. Capping their trio, Rocco, Marzelline and "Fidelio" take iPhone selfies, which prompted me later to wonder why Pizarro keeps tabs on his domain with a bank of paper files in cabinets behind him. Wouldn't a "today-ish" prison governor (as he's styled in the libretto; we would call him a warden) have long since gone digital?

But the big difficulty, worth mentioning only to get it over with and go on to the singing, is the climactic trumpet call signaling the arrival of Pizarro's boss, the government minister Don Fernando, at the prison. That's the rescue avatar of this rescue opera, the musical and dramatic symbol of Leonore's hard-won success saving her unjustly imprisoned husband.

It's quite familiar to symphony concertgoers from the most dramatic of the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his only opera: "Leonore" No. 3. In this production's up-to-date world, it makes no sense for Pizarro to have ordered a trumpeter up to the prison ramparts to play a fanfare indicating Fernando's approach. Think of it: A computerized world in most respects, with a lone bugler appointed to sound a crucial warning that the interruption of Pizarro's murder plot is at hand.

Christine Goerke was a stupendous Fidelio/Leonore, with significant heft in all registers. Especially impressive was her showcase number, opening with "Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?" (addressing with a rhetorical question the departing Pizarro, whom she's overheard planning to do away with Florestan before Fernando comes to inspect the prison). Her radiance in the final scene linked both the vocal and dramatic sides of her role. Her thrilling soprano blended well with the soaring tenor of Russell Thomas as Florestan, whose appearance opening Act 2 had all the heroism and pathos one could want.

In supporting roles, Thomas Blondelle as Jaquino, Marzelline's importunate suitor, was amply expressive in gesture and expression, and sang pleasingly. Laura Tatulescu was a buoyant Marzelline, moving with ease, especially among the flowers she's tending as she sang charmingly of her devotion to Fidelio, whom she sees as a potential husband. In the first act, she often lagged a bit behind the orchestra in a performance conducted sensitively by Jun Märkl, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit at Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center for the Arts.

As Rocco, baritone Nathan Stark was amusing, stalwart, humane and, in the second act, believably conscience-stricken. In stance, movement, and voice, he was perhaps a little too robust to make credible Rocco's protestations that he's no longer able to handle all the hard work of running the jail.

Nmon Ford was chilling as Pizarro, a brute in a snazzy suit.
Nmon Ford presented a handsome figure as Don Pizarro, aptly ferocious and menacing vocally, but severely challenged by the low-lying portions of his role. Daniel Sutin sounded commanding in his brief deus ex machina role, though his slick, white-suited presence as Don Fernando in the last scene disconcertingly brought to mind a banana-republic dictator more than a secular savior and good-government exemplar.

The choral numbers were unfailingly splendid. The staging of the Prisoners' Chorus was imaginative and moving, and the men's singing rang the rafters with joy in breathing fresh air, with the subdued passages reflecting the prisoners' habitual apprehensiveness. The mixed chorus at the end lent massive weight to the opera's moral message — hailing freedom first, then the value of devoted spouses willing to go to great lengths on their partners' behalf.

The crowd rejoices at the downfall of a brutal prison governor in the last scene of "Fidelio."
The singing men and women were supplemented by silent but (mostly) smiling children, indicating that a general prisoner release has been spurred by the arrest of the tyrannical Pizarro, and many families are enjoying happy reunions. One man waves a banner with the word "Freiheit," German for freedom. Joy and freedom are combined, as they were when Leonard Bernstein substituted "Freiheit" for "Freude" in the performance he conducted of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in celebration of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

The production makes it clear that the governor had been running a facility with more than one unjustly confined inmate. The brutality of his rule was indicated along the way by guards' dragging and beating prisoners from time to time, and by a humiliating inspection used to accompany a march originally designed to herald Pizarro's initial appearance.

Thus, that trumpet, however hard it may be to explain in this production's setting, turns out to have announced a community milestone, "a new birth of freedom" (to use Lincoln's phrase), giving an extra boost to Beethoven's exhilarating music of rejoicing. The effect was so uplifting that the massive chorus' falling behind the orchestra in a few accelerated phrases amounted to a mere flyspeck of an annoyance.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

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