Ode to Joy
Beethoven's only opera (1805, revised 1814), Fidelio, is a mighty ode to joy, political freedom and conjugal bliss. In coarse hands, the work — an amalgam of "rescue" melodrama, fluffy musical theater and blood-filled realism — often comes across as lumpy and overcooked. Happily, Houston Grand Opera's production, anchored by radiant performances from international superstar soprano Karita Mattila and majestic tenor Simon O'Neill, bursts forth with thrilling theater and approaches, at times, true grandeur.
For two years, Leonora's husband Florestan (O'Neill) has "disappeared." Fearing that he is being held as a political prisoner by evil Pizarro (baritone Tómas Tómasson), Leonora pretends to be a young man named "Fidelio" to get a job inside the prison as assistant to warden Rocco (bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) so she can rescue her beloved. Musical theater fluff occurs during the beginning scenes when Rocco's young daughter Marzelline (soprano Brittany Wheeler) falls for attractive, macho Fidelio. Even with a musical overhaul and a streamlined libretto for the 1814 production — when Fidelio finally caught on with the public — Beethoven never satisfactorily solved the problem of how to enliven these dull scenes. Although accompanied by the "Quartet," one of Beethoven's most sublime passages, these opening scenes hobble the opera.
What this work needs for success, especially these days when HD telecasts demand age-appropriate singers whose looks must trend toward Hollywood, is a soprano who can make a believable Fidelio, since the character spends the entire opera in male drag. Mattila pulls this off easily. A very handsome singer whose sex appeal has been amply displayed in Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Janacek's Jenufa and, especially, as naked teen psycho in Richard Strauss's Salome, Mattila convinces us she's a gal playing a guy. With hair cropped short and wearing fatigues, she straddles chairs, scrambles up prison doors, jumps off a table, climbs down a two-story metal ladder and packs a pistol in the waist of her pants. She's the most physical Fidelio. (During the curtain call, her enthusiastic embrace of director Jürgen Flimm said everything about a very happy singer's working relationship).
Mattila is also the best-sounding Fidelio. Her dark voice shimmers like velvet, and her dramatic Act I outburst against Pizarro's brutality, the famous "Abscheulicher" ("Monster"), completely chills, while her ecstatic duet with Florestan after Pizarro is vanquished, "O namen, namenlose Freude" ("Nameless Joy"), overflows with delicious bounce. Throughout Act II, O'Neill mesmerizes. With his crystalline Italianate voice, he scales Beethoven's regal vocal line, starting with an unnerving, gut-piercing "Gott, welch Dunkel hier" ("God, how dark it is here"). His energy never stops. Not a small man, he doesn't look as if he's spent two years in solitary, but when he opens his mouth, who cares?
As an actor, Tómasson is faultless as vicious, heartless Pizarro, but as a singer he lacks the requisite vocal oomph for a truly commanding, compelling villain. He can't compete with Beethoven's orchestral maelstrom, whipped up by maestro Michael Hofstetter. That isn't the case with Sigmundsson, who threads easily through the role of conflicted warden Rocco, creating a dense and rich characterization with his steely bass. Throughout, the HGO chorus sings with imposing depth and luscious tone.
For the most part, director Flimm keeps the action updated without making a mess. For a change, the bad guys aren't depicted as storm-trooping Nazis but inhabit some vague, dank South American dictatorship. With prominent black sky, the prison design by Robert Israel is necessarily gloomy, and the production has a distinct hothouse atmosphere. Florestan's subterranean cell in Act II is creepy, with rotten concrete and piles of forgotten prisoners' luggage — a haunting look.
During the mock wedding ceremony between Fidelio and Marzelline, Rocco takes a photo of the couple. When no one's looking, Fidelio opens the camera and pulls out the film to expose it, so there'll be no record of him/her. Strange little touches like this add life.
Curiously, the emotional climax to Act I, when the prisoners are allowed out in the courtyard for a tantalizing taste of freedom, makes little impression. It's not Beethoven's fault. As the men stumble into the light, the scene begins with a haunting whisper in the music that builds inexorably into the expressive, hymn-like "O welche Lust ("O what joy"). On the three-story set, this is all handled clumsily, as only the men in the ground floor cells can come out; the upper levels, built without exterior walkways, had no access. For some, freedom had to wait.
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