Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, has always been a problem child. It contains some of the composer's best music, which has always been part of trouble that audience's have with the opera. At the time of its premiere, Italian operas were all the rage: full of lilting tunes, simple harmonic language, large chorus scenes, spectacular stage effect, and big finales full of happy triumphant. Fidelio, and to a lesser extent Mozart's Don Giovanni were in complete contrast: complex music, character development and dramatic interaction.
Fidelio is very serious music that came straight from the composer's symphonic works; full of motivic construction as opposed to melody, developmental passages, complex counterpoint, fugues and orchestral writing that is not merely accompaniment. While bewildering at the time, even though it is still a set-piece opera, Fidelio pointed to directly to the integrated masterpieces to come—from Wagner to Verdi's Falstaff. It certainly had little in common with operas like the most popular opera at the time, Gasparo Spontini's La Vestale.
It is because of these circumstances that the Dallas Symphony's version of Fidelio, which was heard on Friday evening, failed. It came off more as an extended Beethoven oratorio on a nondramatic subject than the driven drama that a production in the hands of a fine stage director can create, which can put the audience on the edge of their seats.
These singers didn't even look at each other, let alone interact. Further, because of fear of appearing to overact in a concert situation, they withheld the emotional singing that would have been expected on stage. At least the projected subtitles helped the audience understand what was being said, conveyed by the singing or not. Perhaps singing the opera in German and speaking the dialogue in English would have been a better idea.
The perfect example of this failing was the entrance of Don Fernando, the King's Minister, a dramatic turning point of the opera. But baritone Detlef Roth, in the role, calmly walked on stage holding his music stand. Speaking of music stands, most of the cast had their noses buried in the music. Robert Dean Smith, a fine heldentenor singing Florestan, was the only cast member that didn't use a score. On the opposite side of this, Arthur Woodley as the jailer Rocco appeared to be sight-reading. Even his dialogue was clumsily read word-for-word. The other cast members were on a scale from knowing the role but still using the score, to completely memorized but having a score in hand.
What this score dependence meant was that the singers didn't interrelate with each other or with Music Director Jaap van Zweden—or with the audience. It mattered little with Van Zweden, who was in his own symphonic world, once again showing the same tight, bordering on obsessive, control over every note that constricted his recent performance of Mozart and Haydn. Even his posture has changed from earlier in the season. Gone is the straight-standing and commanding presence that so impressed. Recently, he is crouched and hunched over, with knees bent and over conducting with tight gestures and a menacing face. His trademark careful attention to dynamics was also wanting. Many parts were way too loud and the singers were often covered, even though they appeared to be amplified.
Of the singers, the best suited to the role was Smith as Florestan. His clarion tenor was the only one to consistently project over the din of the orchestra. Lisa Milne, as Leonore, has a lovely voice and fine musicianship. She was also the most convincing in creating a character. She just isn't the right voice for the role and was frequently covered. Arthur Woodley, as Rocco, has a deep and rich sound and will probably do a fine job with this role once he learns it. Marcel Reijans was just terrific as the hapless Jaquino. Simona Saturova also did a good job as Marzeline. She was just hard to hear.
Robert Bork has the vocal chops to sing the evil Pizarro, but he seemed more like a nice guy with a distasteful job to do instead of the embodiment of evil that the role demands. Detlef Roth was an inconsequential Don Fernando and, besides, the role was too low for his voice. Paul Kroeger and John Hendricks, members of the chorus, did a fine job on the two smaller roles. The chorus was excellent and even managed to keep up with the breakneck tempo of the finale, which robbed it of its grandeur.
The orchestra played beautifully. Although opera companies have greatly improved their orchestral situation, the Dallas Opera included, hearing this score in the hands of the Dallas Symphony was a highlight. Special kudos have to go to the horn section under the leadership of guest principal Jonathan Boen, principal horn of Lyric Opera of Chicago and special gold star must go to the horn trio that accompanied Leonora's big aria Abscheulicher! It has rarely, if ever, been better played.
The audience, at least those that remained for the entire performance, gave it a standing ovation.