The In Series takes Beethoven’s only opera, the rarely performed Fidelio, and transforms it into a symbol of freedom, a magnificently moving, awe-inspiring vision of hope and redemption through married love. With this, its largest-ever production, it seems there’s nothing this plucky “pocket opera” company, and its company of fearless singers, cannot do.
Here’s the challenge. Musically, Beethoven’s symphonic music is the driving force in Fidelio. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven didn’t know much about the theater. His music, written for musical instruments, is virtuosic, intricate, tough to perform, and even harder to sing.
Within director Nick Olcott’s adaptation, everything is kept as relevant as possible. Olcott bases his version on the “rescue” genre story that cropped up after the French Revolution. Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, a young male prison guard, frees her husband, wrongfully-jailed as a political prisoner. She saves his life, after an evil governor condemned him to death. Olcott changes the time frame from the upheavals of the past centuries, to the political oppression and disappearances (desaparecidos) under 20th century military regimes in Latin American in the 1970s.
Dialogue is spoken in accessible English, not sung in recitative. Throughout, musical director/conductor, Stanley Thurston, keeps 17 singers on an even keel with an expanded 14-instrument orchestra, large for the In-Series. Since the early 1800s, there has been controversy as to how many Fidelio overtures Beethoven wrote. The one used here is the one the composer scaled down in length. (probably around 1814). Given a dynamic delivery from four woodwinds, a full string section and timpani, musical themes are stated, but not the variations.
At the In Series Salon, on Monday, June 6th, Olcott told us he sees the opera not a heavily-weighted Wagnerian tragedy but as a romantic comedy. For him Fidelio is more of a love story than a solemn morality tale. The story starts playfully and ends with an ode to the joys of wedded love, along with a moral. According to Olcott, Beethoven was influenced by French comedy that takes characters to a dangerous place and then rescues them into a happy ending. Yet, while German productions in the 19th century traditionally have focused on the dark, dismal prison scenes, Olcott weighs in with a lighthearted dream.
First of all, there’s the opening “canon,” that is pleasing to hear, in which four of the singers, well-paced and in tight synchronization, react to the news that justice and peace will be restored during a chaotic period. A new civilian government will replace the military junta, and there will be a search for the disappeared ones (desaparecidos) under a new president. The melody sung in counterpoint by each of four characters (Marcelita, Joaquino, Rocco, and Fidelio) is the same, but the expressed feelings are different. The Quartet, “That’s it! I see it now!” is pulse-stopping it is so beautiful.
Tenor Jesus D. Hernandez as Joaquino, effectively projects character development. In the beginning of the opera, he is warm and charming, mildly annoying, as the prison official who tirelessly asserts his love for Marcelita, secretary of the prison office, sung by Randa Rouweyha, who with her soaring, intoxicating soprano, rejects him as a “bore.” Joaquino grows more menacing later in the play when he brandishes a rifle as a prison guard.
Marcelita’s heart is set on Fidelio, sung by soprano Sarah Greenspan, who is Leonora, disguised as a male prison guard. (Costumes by Donna Breslin). From her cover-up, Leonora hopes to find her beloved husband among the disappeared ones (desaparecidos). Prison guard, Rocco is sung by baritone Robert S. Harrelson, who lends an affable, warm baritone voice to the mix. Rocco, who follows orders but is a good-hearted father, has hidden a mysterious prisoner in the lower depths. Yet he is clearly on the defensive with a double-edged message for his daughter, Marcelita. He injects an edgy cynicism by ridiculing the abstractions of “honor, and truth….” “I don’t regret the life I’ve led./For bellies must be filled with bread,…..”
More highpoints reach deeply-moving, symbolic, even sublime levels. Unforgettable is the prisoners’ release from solitary confinement in the Act I Finale. This event in Fidelio equates human suffering with a political event. The prisoners shuffle out of solitary to catch a breath of fresh air and feel the warmth of sunlight, as they sing “What do I see? What do I feel?” There’s a dramatic light change to bloody crimson. Six prisoners, hands tied, blindfolded emerge from behind prison walls represented by flats painted as rust-colored, corrugated steel, for the penal cells.
The inmates sit on benches in front of the spiked prison walls, scribbled with shadows. Leonora takes off their blindfolds and, the lyrics turn allegorical: “This is the dawn of freedom!….. My eyes grew weak with yearning./It hurts to see this sunrise. The light’s too fierce, too burning. My hopes grew dim this war would cease./And now this light proclaims the peace.!”…” The entire scene is profoundly moving and radiates understated power.
And we in the audience can understand why Fidelio historically has been performed like a revered anthem on political occasions. In Europe, the opera became a symbol for the resurgence of freedom at the end of W.W. II. Program notes remind us that in 1989, a modern-dress Fidelio in Dresden, along with public protests against the Communist regime, predated breaking news of “freedom,” four weeks before the Berlin Wall came down.
Even though performed in English, however, you have to listen attentively to hear all the nuanced, often stinging lyrics. We don’t encounter Florestan, Leonora’s imprisoned husband, until the top of Act II. Surtitles, like “Where only one prisoner is held,” are used overhead for clarification so that we know we’re located in the prison’s lower depths. The Florestan aria, sung with trumpeting power by tenor Joe Haughton, is the most unsettling, spell-binding piece in the opera, that nails us. “Oh, this barren cell!” cuts to the bone, like a call to arms. “In the country’s spring of freedom/They have crushed the bloom of hope,” Florestan, sings out. You have to suspend disbelief that this heroic nobleman is chained and on the brink of starvation.
Yet Olcott’s version is not without comic relief, albeit dark. For example: The character of Pizarro, played by baritone Kenneth Derby, in trim military garb, is so filled with malevolent vitriol at the idea of regime change, that he is diabolically absurd: “I will not let civilians rule me./I’ll carry out my own damn plan./Dig his grave, then I’ll kill the man. Yes!/Throw them all in the can!”
Statuesque Sarah Greenspan, in the “trouser-role” of Fidelio, often stands face-out and sings her arias straight-ahead. She projects a boyish innocence as her voice grows sharp-edged and in the upper registers takes on a harsher quality. When she sings, “To live my life and be your wife/I’ll face the harshest trial.” Leonora’s confrontation scene with tyrannical Pizarro brings the story to a highly-charged, if not melodramatic climax.
closes June 26, 2016
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Soprano Randa Rouweyha is stunning and totally appealing as Marcelita, who was in love with Fidelio, and finds herself without a mate at the end. Yet a match is found for her. As in English Restoration and French comedy all knots are tied in matrimony.
Musical jokes and plot twists build to the arrival of the new, magnanimous Minister of Justice, Fernando, sung by baritone Alex Alburqueque, who delivers an ironic surprise about reunification and the rule of law in the Finale.
Meanwhile, the rest of the ensemble stand outside the action of the story and give us commentary on the moral and the power of love in a lighthearted, joyous manner. “And for those of you still single/Gosh, we hope you find a mate.” Echoes of musical phrases from Beethoven’s great choral “Ode to Joy,” in the Ninth Symphony, also can be heard. Message? Put up a fierce fight to preserve our freedom from tyranny. Praise the resourceful devotion of Leonore, who liberates her husband, Beethoven’s hope for all of mankind. Better yet: Cheer for the In Series for bringing back Beethoven alive and thrilling!
Fidelio, Opera in Two Acts by Ludwig Van Beethoven, based on the original German libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner, Stephen von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, after Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal. Cast: Soprano Sarah Greenspan as Leonora. Baritone Robert Harrelson as Rocco, the jailor.
Soprano Randa Rouweyha as Marcelita. Tenor Jesus Daniel Hernandez as Juaquino.
Tenor Joe Haughton as Florestan, a political prisoner. Bass-Baritone Kenneth Derby as Pizzaro.
Ensemble: Tenor Nick Carratura, Soprano Melissa Chavez, Soprano Annie Gill, Baritone Sam Jones, Soprano Daniele Lorio, Baritone Elliot Matheny, Baritone DeCarlo J. Raspberry, Mezzo-soprano Patricia Portillo, Tenor David Wolff. Production Team: Nick Olcott, Writer/Adaptor of Libretto and Director. Stanley Thurston, Musical Director/Conductor. Donna Breslin, Resident Costume Designer. Elizabeth McFadden, Set Design. Marianne Meadows, Lighting Design. Carla Hübner, Producing Artistic Director for InSeries . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.
Instrumental ensemble in the orchestra pit: Gavin Fallow, Concertmaster. Alexa Cantalupo, Violin I. Sonia Garcia, and John Philligin III. Viola, George Ohlson and Mary Dausch.
Violincello: Anna Bain Pugh. Double-Bass: Matthew F. Nix. Clarinet: Nick Thompson.
Bassoon: Renee Deboer. Oboe: Eliana Schenk on 6/18 & 19. Miriam Friedman on 6/25 & 26.
Flute: Susanm Bour. Horn: Nikita Solberg. Timpani: Dakota Kaylor 6/18, 19 & 25.
Matt Halligan 6/26.