Wiener Staatsoper Review: Beethoven's One and Only "Fidelio"

Ah, Fidelio. Beethoven's one and only opera. Beethoven's frustration with the art form, expressed in letter form, "I assure you, dear Treitschke, that this opera will win me a martyr's crown. You have by your co-operation saved what is best from the shipwreck. For all this I shall be eternally grateful to you," is fascinating given his status as one of the most renowned composers in history. I had always thought, prior to seeing this opera here for the first time in full, that the music was amazing (as can only be expected from Beethoven), but that the drama was static and not particularly moving throughout most of the work. I, at least in part, attribute this to the libretto, despite the fact that three different operas have been based on the same story. An interesting comparison here is the fact that, if we expect Beethoven to have successful operas to his name due to his status as an all-star composer, we expect Schubert to have them because of his status as one of the best vocal composers in history. Schubert's attempts at opera were also essentially entirely unsuccessful, however. In this case too, we know Schubert was able to write excellent vocal music, but his selection of libretti was so poor, making the works as a whole untenable. Nonetheless, in Beethoven's case, after three painstaking revisions to Fidelio, it has become loved and admired by audiences around the world, and the production by the Staatsoper highlighted the best elements of the opera.

Synopsis & background information (including some information on Beethoven's difficulties writing the opera and his revision process):

FIDELIO | Ludwig van Beethoven
Bertrand de Billy | Dirigent
Otto Schenk | Nach einer Inszenierung von
Günther Schneider Siemssen | Bühne nach Entwürfen von
Leo Bei | Kostüme

Robert Dean Smith | Florestan
Waltraud Meier | Leonore
Albert Dohmen | Don Pizarro
Markus Marquardt | Don Fernando
Lars Woldt | Rocco
Anita Hartig | Marzelline
Benjamin Bruns | Jaquino
Wolfram Igor Derntl | 1. Gefangener
Johannes Gisser | 2. Gefangener

The set for the Staatsoper's production was simple, yet felt strikingly original and unique, as well. The beginning was in a sort of courtyard (or perhaps it was intended to be an open space inside). The walls all looked like a rough, grey rock-looking substance. Some foliage was visible, and up and behind the foreground of this courtyard, the iron and other elements of the prison could be seen. This was very fitting for the beginning scenes of domesticity on the edge of Rocco's charge that later give way to the darkness of the prison proper. The next setup had large square columns of the same rock with dark wooden or metal elevated walkways between them in a very modern style (for instance, their round shape, suggested this). This scene, in particular, gave the sense of a fairly modern prison, especially with guards carrying firearms on top of it. I must say I also wonder whether, given the fact that Florestan is a political prisoner, the image was supposed to invoke Nazi concentration camps or Soviet Gulags, even though the costuming and weaponry in the show was clearly from a time that predated these institutions. For the prison scene and Leonore's confrontation of Don Pizarro, the stage was dominated by one central column, center stage, to which Florestan was chained. To one side of it was the well, set into the stage, for digging. Other columns to the side and behind receded into shadow. Coming from stage left was a staircase that crossed behind the column and opened to the side of it. Finally, for the very end of the show the columns of rough rock on the side of the stage returned, but this time they held a drawbridge to the very upstage portion of the set, allowing the drawbridge to be lowered and for the prisoners to be reunited with their loved ones. The terraced floor in this scene allowed for a large, visible semicircle to form around the main characters as the resolution played out. I thoroughly enjoyed the simple cleanliness (though it was frequently dark and dirty) of this style of set. It changed frequently enough to keep it interesting, but each time it was a variation on a theme and the clean lines made the action easily accessible.

I was very impressed with the chorus in this production. The men did a good job in their first sequence of scenes, where they are admitted to the garden for leisure time, first ecstatic over their temporary freedom, and then distraught over their premature re-incarceration. Nonetheless, it was the full chorus, brought together for the finale, that really impressed me. As they switched off with the soloists, they brought a big, boisterous sound to the scene, bringing home the moral of the story and also drawing the audience into their ecstatic rejoicing for the triumph of justice. It was here, more than anywhere else, that the comparison between Fidelio and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was the most clear. I could truly hear the chorus in the symphony's fourth movement echoed in this chorus at the end of Fidelio, both singing about that triumph of "good" over "evil" so characteristic of this period of Beethoven's life.

Benjamin Bruns, in the third role in which I have seen him, was a convincing Jaquino. While he didn't quite have the seeming godliness that he did in Die Zauberflöte, he also didn't feel as rough as in Alcina. He managed to channel, however, some of the rash passion from Oronte in Alcina, here portraying a young lover smitten with one of the few attractive young women he has likely met, given his choice of profession. I think his beautiful light-lyric/lyric voice was well fit to this role as he sweetly supplicated Marzelline for her love and later, as he sulked as a spurned lover (but without the raging fury the similar role in Alcina required).

Markus Marquardt's Don Fernando only shows up toward the tale end of the opera, of course, but his performance in the role was kind-hearted and warm. After so recently seeing him in the role of Jochanaan in R. Strauss' Salome, it was quite a change to see him here. He retained the passion and power that was necessary for the religious zealot of Salome. Here, however, he tempered that passion with a less-steely, warmer tone that gave him the necessary feel of a father figure, kind to the prisoners but nonetheless possessing the upright moral standing to level righteous justice against Don Pizarro.

As Don Pizzaro, Albert Dohmen gave us exactly what we would like out of a bass villain. As a baseline for the role, he was audible at almost every moment, even as the orchestra and his costars rose to their limits. I preferred him here greatly over his lackluster outing as The Commendatore in Don Giovanni. Nonetheless, it was his stage presence and the color of the voice that really allowed him to own the role. The color was not over the top, if robust voices are often described as "steely," I would say this one was iron. Still, this fit with his characterization of the villain. While Don Pizzaro often characterizes his imprisonment of Florestan as revenge, he nonetheless seems fairly carefree, as though it is simply natural that Florestan should be locked up. This, in its way, is yet more sinister. A villain constantly working to bring about some evil is driven and terrible, but one who simply waves a hand and has his enemy locked up and then laughs about it until he realizes he must kill him (and then doesn't flinch at that), is something worse.

One of the most impressive performers in this production of Fidelio was Lars Woldt. When Woldt took his curtain call for his performance as Rocco he seemed genuinely surprised at how enthusiastic the audience was. Having seen him in R. Strauss' Arabella as Count Waldner, I might say I was surprised how enthusiastic I was, as well. There's some similarity between the roles. They are both fathers, both must, in the end, right some wrong, and both feel a bit guilty about their overall conduct. As Waldner, however, I felt Woldt seemed wishy-washy, as though he couldn't figure out whether he was a father who felt he had no choice but to marry his daughters off for money and regretted it or a father who only suddenly realized that doing so was wrong. Here, however, he portrayed a very consistent Rocco who loves his daughter and wants her to marry a good man, and who also as a gaoler has no problem locking up those who deserve it, but who regrets his complicity in Don Pizzaro's political incarcerations, doing so only out of fear. Vocally, Woldt also seemed more on his game. Every moment his bass voice flowed over us, almost like a kind of melted chocolate in which, from time to time, little peppermints could be found, adding a little more silvery zing to the sound in order to supply some comedy (for instance in his "Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben") or fear.

A discerning reader might wonder why I have waited to mention Marzelline. The reason for this is that Anita Hartig's performance in the role relates directly to the performance of Waltraud Meier as Leonore. I was certainly happy with Anita Hartig in the role of Donna Elvira, loving her sweet timidity and the beauty of her voice, she brought even more to the role of Marzelline. Here, the incredible ring to her voice, the bright squillo, allowed her to cut over (or through) all the other singers on stage, and the orchestra, at any given moment. Furthermore, she was able to be firm with Jaquino, adoring of Fidelio, and endearing with her father. I will, later, complain about the first act of the opera, but I must say that it was Hartig's performance as Marzelline that kept me interested and loving every moment.

While great for the production as a whole, Anita Hartig's superb Marzelline was detrimental to Waltraud Meier as Leonore/Fidelio. Meier's voice, throughout the entire first act and, honestly, much of the second, felt stretched to its limits. Even then, it was frequently overtopped by Anita Hartig's squillo, the larger voice unable to cut through or power over the orchestra where the younger woman's sailed along. Meier has many Wagnerian credits to her name, and has clearly marked her place as a singer of extraordinarily large roles. If her audibility were the only thing in question, I might be inclined to be more lenient. The voice, however, seemed to be in questionable health, as well. There were several points where, holding out a longer note, the voice seemed to grow scratchy, and even cut out entirely. Her high notes were squawked out, and it was clear from watching her that she was pushing to make them happen (I'm not sure that she wouldn't have them if she accessed them properly, either). Finally, watching her abdominal work, it was clear she was supporting a lot (necessary for roles like the ones she undertakes, of course), but there seemed to be some sort of odd vibrating tension throughout the whole core as she worked for dramatic climaxes. One might note that this is because her voice is, as she believes, a mezzo-soprano rather than soprano voice. Still, selecting a role for which the voice is not fit is not an excuse for lower quality or vocally unhealthy performance.Still, in the most important scene of Fidelio, the revelation of Fidelio's identity and her defense of Florestan against Don Pizzaro, she brought all the emotional fire to the moment that was necessary to incite emotions in the audience. It was here (and only here, to be honest) that I really felt emotionally connected to the main plot of this opera. I truly saw Waltraud as the heroine, beating down the tyrant Pizarro and saving her beloved husband. The tension of the scene was aided, no doubt, by the work of Albert Dohmen, and particularly that of Lars Woldt and Robert Dean Smith.

While not actually on stage particularly long, Florestan is often as scrutinized in Fidelio as Leonore is, a golden standard for dramatic tenors. Robert Dean Smith was a refreshing tenor voice for the Staatsoper. Unsurprisingly, for a Germanic opera house, many of the heavy tenor voices they employ are either very dark, or seem shouty and barked. Smith, however, had a ringing, virile voice. It had the large, dramatic size necessary for Florestan, but also the cut we expect the best tenor voices to possess. It was clear that the high notes required effort, but they didn't sound strained or pushed. I wouldn't necessarily want to hear Smith singing a note with lots of high Cs and Bs, but here, the extra power necessary for the high notes was thrilling. Smith's "Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!" was riveting, drawing us in to the second act. This thrilling singing, mixed with solid acting skills, continued as Fidelio's identity was revealed to him. It was his excellent presence and stunning voice that helped to undergird Waltraud's performance in the prison scene and redeem her actions as a whole.

Perhaps some of the highest plaudits were claimed by the orchestra. They played exquisitely throughout, under the direction of French conductor Bertrand de Billy. For the rather lengthy "Leonore's 3rd Overture," the audience applauded with great enthusiasm, and Billy had to stand the orchestra up twice while taking numerous bows himself. While I don't mean to diminish the Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper or Billy, I must say this is also a testament to Beethoven's strengths as a composer. Fidelio is an opera, but some of his greatest music in the show comes in its overtures. Again, this reminds, to an extent, of the Ninth Symphony, a symphonic work where the voices are the icing on the cake.

Fidelio is a strange opera. It is written by a Classical composer at the dawn of the Romantic Era, but before any of the revolutions in singing caused by Bellini, Verdi, and Wagner had taken place. Its vocal demands and size are large enough to compete with Wagner, and it is less divided into "numbers" than the operas of its contemporaries. The first half of the opera is all exposition with essentially very little action. It almost begs the question whether it would be more compelling to begin in medias res at the beginning of the second act. Indeed, in this production the cast showed us that that's where the emotional fireworks really are.


Popular posts from this blog

Wiener Staatsoper, The Insanity of All: Richard Strauss' "Salome"