Santa Fe, N.M. — Beethoven’s Fidelio, his only opera, is a masterpiece that requires some patience on the part of the audience in order to savor its riches. Beethoven extends scenes beyond what composers with a better stage sense would do, with lots of glorious music. It’s easy to imagine why the original with three acts was not as successful as this final two-act version.
It takes singers with some heft to sing over Beethoven’s symphonically scaled music and with the requisite endurance to make it to the end. It also requires singers who can project the dramatic impact over a long period of time as well. Thus, the casting for the production at the Santa Fe Opera is one inspired choice after another.
But, director Stephen Wadsworth’s decision to change the opera's venue from 18th century Spain to Hitler’s horrific prison camps is not one of those inspirations.
Beethoven’s opera could be, and has been, set in any repressive strong-arm state. Noriega’s Panama or Papa Doc’s Haiti would work just as well; Hitler’s Germany is another matter. Beethoven’s prison, with a single well-meaning jailer who lives there with his daughter, is a jovial affair that contrasts strangely up against the Nazi gas chambers. A few swastikas, “Heil Hitler’s” and pre-recorded barking dogs are feeble attempts at scene-setting realism and only serve to underline the disparity.
At the end of WWII, no King sent an understanding emissary to remove an abusive Governor and liberate a handful of prisoners who then sang a happy chorus. When the German camps were liberated, Hitler’s few surviving prisoners were barely alive and surrounded by the stench of the unburied corpses and grisly mass graves of millions.
There is no place for Hitler-lite on any stage unless you are Mel Brooks. That said and put aside, no matter how problematic this concept is, all other aspects of the production are quite extraordinary.
The set, by Charles Corcoran, is a stack of boxes two high and four across. An entry below and hallway above connect them. Upstairs, we have Pizarro’s office and a waiting room. Downstairs is Fidelio’s private bedroom and a kitchen. (You have to wonder how the jailer’s helper boy ended up with such nice digs.)
That “boy” is really Leonora, the devoted wife of Florestan, a political prisoner being held in a secretly hidden cell. Florestan is a political rival of Pizarro, the evil and corrupt Governor who has stashed him out of the way until he can kill him without anyone noticing. Leonora, disguised as a boy, gets a job helping the jailer Rocco, whose daughter Marzelline finds him attractive enough to dump her current boyfriend, the assistant jailer Jaquino. An awkward situation indeed. Thus disguised, Fidelio/Leonora is able to stop the murder of her husband at the very last nail-biting moment. Don Fernando arrives as emissary from the King in the nick of time and all ends happily (for everyone except Pizarro, who is led off in chains).
Leonora is portrayed by Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda, whose slight build makes her the most believable “boy” you are likely to see in the role. The huge voice required to sustain the role is usually owned by a correspondingly sized soprano. Penda is always credible as an adolescent male, even in her spoken dialogue. In the first act, her singing voice is disappointing. This is probably because a lot of the opening scene of benign domesticity is in the weaker middle of her voice. When the music takes her either above or below that, she becomes a powerhouse with trumpet-like high notes and a trombone-like chest voice—even though it takes some obvious physical effort to make that happen.
Florestan doesn’t appear until the second act, but it takes a tenor with stamina to make it from there to the finale. American tenor Paul Groves has what would appear to be a nearly perfect voice for the role. He has a mixture of lyric, spinto and heldentenor voices and can switch between them when required by the music. Stentorian high notes are paired with a beautifully floated pianissimo.
His repertoire reflects this versatility. His 2009 SFO opera debut was as Admete in Gluck’s masterpiece Alceste, and his future engagements include Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal along with Nicias in Massenet’s Thaïs. His performance in this difficult role is first class, although he seems to tire near the end.
Austrian bass Manfred Hemm harrumphs through the role of the conflicted jailer, Rocco, with the music appearing to be both too high and too low for his present vocal state. This does not prevent him from creating a believable character: a government functionary willing to starve the prisoner in his care, allowing himself to override his pity for a fellow human with the justification that he is “just following orders.”
Devon Guthrie, in a dowdy hausfrau dress and hairdo, creates a more mature Marzelline than we usually see. This makes her infatuation with the adolescent “boy” a little creepy, something Wadsworth underlines by having her sniff Fidelio’s pillow and roll around in his bed when he is not there. Vocally, she is terrific. She sings the lyric roles now, such as Susanna in Mozart’s Figaro, but the darker timbre of her voice foretells of a future in more spinto territory. But for the present, her singing is a pure and fresh lyric soprano. She brings a youthfulness to the role that belies her costuming.
She is well matched by the tenor Joshua Dennis as her spurned intended, Jaquino, who refuses to give up on her. He is a young talent to watch; vocally secure and an able actor. His frustration at his situation boils over at one point and he commands the stage as he sinks to his knees with the realization that his world is collapsing around him.
Greer Grimsley barks his way through the role of Don Pizarro, creating a terrifying portrait of an insignificant and insecure man with too much power. His voice is huge and easily dwarfs the rest of the cast. Oddly enough—and this is not meant as a backhanded compliment—he is at his most memorable when not singing and he owes this to Wadsworth. We see him mute, pathetically closing down his office while the dungeon scene takes place below him. He knows that everything is over for him. We see him slump, but we also know that he is letting the murder of Florestan take place while he neatly folds the Nazi flag and tidies up his desk. Quite chilling.
Grimsley pulls his chin down, which may add some depth and richness, but it looks odd because he does it every time he starts to sing. This has the effect of his head constantly bobbing up and down, as though he was looking over bifocals. Perhaps this is a piece of very particular characterization, with Pizarro as someone who looks down on people as he shouts in their face.
Evan Hughes, a young bass-baritone with a future, does what he can with the ungrateful role of Don Fernando. But it is the men’s chorus that deliveres the goose-bump moment of the evening. When Rocco allows them a few precious moments out of their dank cells and into the fresh air and sunshine, their singing of the chorus “O welche Lust” (“Oh what joy”) hushes the audience and dampens a few eyes.
There was quite a lot of anticipation as Harry Bicket, the newly appointed music director of the company, took the podium for the first opera within his tenure. Best known for his work in Baroque opera, many were wondering how Beethoven’s ripe romanticism would be rendered. What we received was a marvelously transparent performance, as though the orchestral windows had been recently washed. There was a surprising clarity to his performance as he uncovered hidden treasures in the orchestration. From my seat he was occasionally just over the edge of too loud, especially in the opening scenes, and slightly covered the singers. This was especially true with Penda when she sang in the middle of her voice. There were also a few times when the ensemble stuttered here and there, but these are small details that faded into insignificance against the brilliant glory of his interpretation.
Yet while it is a terrific performance overall, even memorable, the highly inappropriate overlay of Hitler’s Germany sours the final takeaway.
» Other reviews from the 2014 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Donizetti's Don Pasquale
- Bizet's Carmen
- Mozart's The Impresario and Stravinsky's Le Rossignol
- Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen