Fidelio from Houston Grand Opera: Thrilling Theater

The setup: Beethoven's only opera (1805, revised 1814) is a mighty ode to joy, political freedom and conjugal bliss. 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 (Mattila) pretends to be a young man named "Fidelio" and becomes assistant to warden Rocco (bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) so she can rescue her beloved.

The execution: Since the character spends the entire opera in male drag, we need to be convinced. Mattila easily convinces. 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. Her dark voice glimmers with velvet warmth, and her dramatic Act I outburst against Pizarro's brutality, the famous "Abscheulicher" ("Monster"), completely chills.

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") and his energy never flags. Not a small man, he doesn't look at all as if he has spent two years in solitary, but when he opens his mouth, who cares?

Tómasson is faultless when he acts a 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.

Sigmundsson threads effortlessly through the role of conflicted warden Rocco, creating a dense, rich characterization with his steely bass. Throughout, the HGO chorus sings with imposing depth and luscious tone.

Director Jürgen 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 rusty prison design by Robert Israel is necessarily gloomy, and the production has a distinct hothouse atmosphere.

The verdict: Under Mattila's drag king diva and O'Neill's divo, Beethoven's sole opera is in fine voice.

Fidelio plays November 1, 5, 10 and 13 at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Order tickets online at www.houstpngrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737).

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