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Conductor Michael Hofstetter Is Caught Up in Fidelio's Story and Music

The most difficult thing in Fidelio "is that there is this tendency to be loud from the first to the last note. You have to really work on the fine and subtle moments," German conductor Michael Hofstetter told Art Attack.

He does that, he said, while trying "to bring out as clear as possible the musical language of the score in terms of colors, in terms of phrasing. Understanding the score as a language, as an instrument like people talking to each other. If that happens, then we can really support the atmosphere on the stage because the orchestra so often says what the singers feel in their soul. What they don't say but what is the text underneath."

Hofstetter is conducting the version of Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera for the Houston Grand Opera, with the lead roles sung by Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano, and Simon O'Neill as Florestan. The opera is known as a tricky one to negotiate for its singers. Hofstetter said not only the stars but the chorus members in HGO's production are more than up to the challenge.

To Hofstetter (who conducted Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict for HGO in 2008), one of the most important things about Fidelio, he said, is that it is "a riveting tale of loyalty based on a true story."

"The fact is that a French lawyer, Bouilly, during and after the French Revolution, he himself experienced how a French man had been thrown into prison but maybe unjustly by the Jacobeans, the counterrevolution," Hofsetter told Art Attack. "No one knew really whether he has survived. And his wife in man's dress went there, found her way into the prison and succeeded in freeing her husband. The lawyer, he got knowledge of this. He wrote down the story. "

And from the story was developed a libretto and then the music by Beethoven -- which turned out to be a long, slow process, hence the different versions. By the time Beethoven was done tinkering with Fidelio, the story had been focused on Leonore's search for her husband Florestan, while never knowing if he was alive or not.

"That moment when she gets there, it is like an incredible explosion. No Hollywood story could ever be stronger. It is an extreme explosion of the good and the evil at the same time," Hofstetter said. "Within a few seconds, she realizes it's her husband. Pizarro is coming to kill him. She throws herself in front of Pizarro but still in men's clothes, so everyone thinks it's Fidelio. A second later shouting out, "I'm his wife." Everyone is shocked in this room."

In this production, the opera has been reset to 1914. (Beethoven finalized Fidelio in 1814.) Hofstetter had previously conducted an earlier (and less successful) version of Fidelio referred to as Leonore after the female lead. The final version, Hofstetter said, benefited from its focus on Leonore and Florestan's story instead of the family life of other characters.

This production has a surprise at its ending, Hofstetter said, declining to reveal what that is. He urged opera lovers to attend.

"I think it is a unique piece in very many aspects. One aspect, not the least one, is that one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived wrote this. He has only written one opera. I think it's more than worth it exposing yourself to the experience of hearing that."

Houston Grand Opera's remaining Fidelio performances at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue, start at 7:30 p.m. on November 10 and at 2 p.m. on November 13. Tickets start at $38. For information go to www.houstongrandopera.org.

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