Opera Lafayette has taken on a prodigiously ambitious task in tackling the “reawakening” of Ludwig van Beethoven’s single operatic masterpiece (Fidelio) by giving us the composer’s earlier and little-known work Leonore (1805) as a modern premiere. Everything about it pointed to a singularly important Washington event at Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, and serious opera lovers had turned out.
By calling it part of their Leonore Project, Artistic Director Ryan Brown acknowledges both his company’s production in 2017 of Gaveaux/Bouilly’s earlier opéra comique, Léonore ou L’Amour Conjugal, with similar story and themes, and also the work that went into historical research to prepare for this later, heavier work. This included re-imagining the lost and doctored-parts of a Beethoven aria by musicologist Will Crutchfield and the assembling of forces that have gone into the challenge. An impressive glossy, dramaturgical pamphlet was distributed along with the Kennedy Center program, further demonstrating the serious investment the company has made with this production.
There was a short blip right at the start of the single Washington performance, which, while not serious, did change the evening’s tone of pomp and circumstance. While the maestro took his place preparing to raise his baton, the conductor’s podium seemingly insisted on joining the musical forces for Beethoven’s overture. After trying to tame the volunteer “instrument,” Brown called for back-up, “There seems to be a sound coming from the podium when I move and I move a lot, so we have to deal with it.” ‘Deal’ KC staff did, but the moment united the assembled crowd onto the conductor’s side. Soon the podium was subdued, the proper complement of “unionized” instruments restored, and a smiling triumphant Brown got us into the overture.
It was truly a highlight of the evening. Brown demonstrated his masterful command of the Opera Lafayette Orchestra. Together they manifested all the dynamics in Beethoven’s glorious work, from his signature heavy chords at its start, through the musical swells, swirls and eddies, and including the sharp attacks followed by the pauses in which, from where I sat, I could hear Ryan sharply inhale, holding his musicians back and then, with a puff of expelled air, cueing them to break out in the final Allegro con brio movement as if they were racehorses lunging out of the gate and galloping to the finish.
As the overture ended, the heavy gold front curtain disappeared, and we were into the world prepared for us by librettist Joseph Sonnleithner in this 1805 version, after Jean-Nicolas Bouilly.
Laurence Mongeau had designed a simple but striking set of strong lines dominated by a series of interlocking frames that served as doors, gates, pillars, and changing venues. Wires were strung from the top beams to the stage floor creating pleasing verticals and diagonals, and, caught beautifully by Lighting Designer Rob Siler, they conjured up images of suspension bridges but also vaguely jail bars. Most importantly, the symbolic forms did not detract from the singers but rather framed them throughout the evening and kept them in strong focus.
The story is moved along through scenes of dialogue punctuated by sung arias, duets, trios and more than a few taxing larger complements. (The music is challenging.) Later, briefly, a chorus is inserted. Beethoven was clearly experimenting with certain musical themes (“Nein, nein, nein”) and assembling voices singing the same words but meaning quite different things.
The work is organized to follow an older “rescue opera” genre: a wife risks all to rescue her wrongly-imprisoned husband. (The strong, courageous heroine who does the rescuing makes Beethoven’s opera the favorite of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg.)
We are first introduced to Jailer Rocco’s daughter Marzelline, who is in love with Fidelio (actually Leonore who is living disguised as a man to gain information about her imprisoned husband.) Pascale Beaudin is delightful as the irrepressible daughter. With her short cropped hair and gamine figure, she attacks the role full throttle – her consonants as crisp as her sharply in-focus movements. Whether folding laundry or smoking a pipe, she is always engaged and specific in her stage business. Her Marzelline is something of a minx, and Beaudin’s intentions are crystal. She presents as a most modern young woman, goin after what she wants (Fidelio) and discarding abruptly the rest (her poor suitor Jaquino.)
The opera, at this point, partly due to Beaudin’s sparkling performance, feels cheery and light as cotton candy. We are carried through Marzelline’s aria followed by a duet with Jaquino, which then becomes a trio with Rocco, all on the subject of love and matrimony. It looks like Marzelline will get the man she wants as she wraps Daddy (Rocco) around her little finger.
Keven Geddes is suitably guileless and pathetic as the lovelorn Jaquino. He sings with such warmth and grace that he wins our sympathy.
The next performance of Leonore is March 2 and 4, 2020 in New York City.
Stephen Hegedus as Rocco inserts the first darkly serious note in the opera with his aria about love not being enough but one needs to have gold. Hegedus possesses a marvelous voice and so embodies the complexity of the role he nearly steals the show. He moves between being a generous and sympathetic ally to one who has to tow the line and keep below the radar to protect himself in a vicious, greedy world. Throughout the opera, this bass-baritone has the richness and range to deliver all the colors necessary to carry us along through the intrigue.
Nathalie Paulin gives us a sympathetic Leonore but approached the role with such understatement that at times it felt a little opaque. In this performance, the voice was more pleasing than remarkable, but there were some exquisite moments such as her aria, “Ah, do not break my blunted heart.” The music Beethoven has written for Leonore is devilishly tricky, and yet Paulin delivers even the hardest of passages, including the repeated descending trills, with finesse.
When the arch-villain Pizarro enters, it’s the opposite of subtlety. The show is thrust into another universe. Matthew Scollin is a strong theatrical performer in whatever genre of music-theatre he is cast. (I saw him in Candide in Glimmerglass as an unforgettable Martin.) With his hair shorn to a tiny cap, khol-rimmed eyes, black leather gloves, and bunched-caterpillar moustache, he seemed a cross between Mephistopheles and Hitler. (Well, if you caught Jojo Rabbit this past Oscar season, it’s Hitler as Taika Waititi.) Scollin’s performance first caught me off guard, made me uneasy, but then grew so bold and in the face of anything else on stage it became camp. (I caught myself tittering at the Waititi comparison.)
Director Oriol Tomas had staged a fine first act, creating marvelous pictures and giving the singers bold defining gestures and business (thinking of Marzelline’s pipe, Jaquino’s big cheese rounds and lunchbox clutter, and the business with folding bedsheets that later become a swaddled “baby” passed between Marzelline and Leonore aka Fidelio.)
Something, however, happened in the second act. Judging by the resources and efforts to reconstruct the principal tenor’s missing aria, perhaps this cut into limited rehearsal time, and the action got blurrier. Things weren’t solved. The business with the fight set up between Leonore and Pizarro felt awkward, and Leonore’s dropping of the pistol with Pizarro fleeing, lame. Finally, in the resolution, Marzelline’s ending up with Jaquino looked like a hasty cover-up for mistaken blocking rather than her intentional crossing the stage to join her once-jilted suitor.
Chorus numbers throughout were weakly staged; first the prisoners shuffled along aimlessly as they were allowed a bit of fresh air. The kumbaya moment, when the freed prisoners were finally reunited with their wives and stood around as grinning fools, was unconvincing. Without an identified Chorus Master, musically the members struggled to blend their voices and end musical lines cleanly.
However, the young tenor Jean-Michel Richer in the role of Florestan, Leonore’s imprisoned husband, who only entered in the second half of the opera, made every moment on stage count. If musically he was still developing nuance in his instrument, hia voice was strong and clear, and physically he made us believe the horrible condition of being deeply buried in the prison and the physical suffering of the man. In the much-anticipated reconstructed aria, his voice was compelling, carrying us through his initial lamenting recitative where he surrenders to God and then the beautiful aria where he recalls happy days with his wife.
When husband and wife were reunited, Paulin and he radiated such genuine feeling that their duet was most affecting.
If perhaps Opera Lafayette has proven more successful in producing works that have fewer moving pieces, Leonore is nonetheless a strong and absorbing work, the company shows off its outstanding orchestra and it takes us more deeply into the heart of Beethoven’s genius.
I have a feeling that both orchestra and singers have never worked so hard. Such a pity Washington couldn’t receive one more performance.
Leonore (1805). Music by Ludwig van Beethoven. Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner, after Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. Conducted by Ryan Brown. Stage Direction by Oriol Tomas. Set and Costume Design by Laurence Mongeau. Lighting Design by Rob Siler. With Nathalie Paulin, Jean-Michel Richer, Stephen Hegedus, Matthew Scollin, Pascale Beaudin, Keven Geddes, Alexandre Sylvestre, and the Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus. Produced by Opera Lafayette. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.