Santa Fe Opera Festival 2014:”Fidelio”

Santa Fe Opera Festival 2014
Opera in two acts, libretto Joseph Sonnleithner & Friedrich Treitschke after Jean-Nicolas Boully
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
Florestan  PAUL GROVES
Don Fernando EVAN HUGHES
Chorus & Orchestra Santa Fe Opera Festival
Conductor Harry Bicket
Chorus Master  Susanne Sheston
Director  Stephen Wadsworth 
Scenic Designer  Charles Corcoran
Costume Designer  Camille Assaf
Lighting Designer Duane Schuler 
July 12, 2014    

The opening night performance of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, was presented in the beautiful open air theater of Santa Fe Opera (SFO) under the most auspicious and uncanny of circumstances. The operagoers were blessed with warm sunshine for the pre-performance tailgating (an age old tradition at SFO) followed by a sunset that painted the sky with various shades of pink and indigo. Lightning and thunder ensued, the perfect backdrop to this rescue opera with elements of Sturm und Drang. Hours later, as if the Heavens were moved by the musical journey from darkness into the light, the sky cleared as the cast took their final bows and a spectacular supermoon emerged from the storm to greet the departing patrons.  The orchestra was a little shaky out the gates with some dubious notes from the woodwinds at the beginning of the Fidelio Overture. The instrumentalists quickly warmed up, however, and only got better as the evening progressed. The oboists and french horn players deserve a special mention – Beethoven entrusted them with some of the opera’s most glorious lines which these musicians delivered faithfully.
The production’s Achilles’ heel, sadly, is a result of incorrect casting of the two leading roles: Fidelio and Florestan. While I appreciate soprano Alex Penda’s great vocal agility and those exquisite, effortless pianissimi high notes in “Komm Hoffnung,” Penda is unable to disguise her coloratura/lyric soprano fach the way her character, Leonore, is able to disguise her gender. This role does not belong in Penda’s repertoire. Listening to her SFO YouTube interview, it is evident that she employs an unnaturally forced, artificially robust speaking voice in order to sound more manly on stage (her natural speaking voice sits much higher). There is an odd disconnect, a disparity in weight and color, between her chest voice and her upper register which leads me to think she’s not utilizing her real voice, but distorting her voice to create a darker and heavier sound. I personally find it disturbing that singers would jeopardize the health of their vocal chords to sing a role that is completely ill-suited for them. It is like a marathon runner forcing his/her feet into shoes that are a size too small.
Likewise, Paul Groves is as much a heldentenor as Penda is a dramatic soprano. Incorrect voice type casting for the role of Florestan sets this singer up for failure, especially with an aria as difficult as the one that opens Act II. Groves attacked “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” with a cry of anguish. His first utterance from the depth of the dungeon, a sustained “Gott,” was heart-wrenching. Sadly that was also the highlight of the aria. Groves struggled uncomfortably toward the end of the piece where, as a delirious Florestan, he had to sing higher and higher with the rising line of the oboe. Rather than singing, however, Groves shouted his way through some of the more challenging passages in an effort to create that distinct heldentenor sound and volume, a quality which his voice simply does not possess. As a result his delivery lacked dynamic nuance with nothing softer than mezzo-forte or louder than forte.
Austrian bass Manfred Hemm stole the show as Rocco. His very human and sympathetic portrayal of the conflicted jailor is a refreshing interpretation of a character who all too frequently gets caricaturized. Hemm’s comfort with the German language comes across in his crystal clear diction, both in his singing and spoken dialogue. His hearty, robust voice serves as a solid foundation for any ensemble singing. Especially sublime was “Mir ist so wunderbar.” A moment of stillness and inward contemplation, the quartet was the paragon of perfect balance between the singers and orchestra.
Greer Grimsley as a menacing and brash Nazi Pizarro played the perfect villain. Devon Guthrie and Joshua Dennis were both proficient in their respective roles as Marzelline and Joaquino. Evan Hughes was a quiet Don Fernando. His voice and presence lacked authority and his sound was often overwhelmed by the other singers. The Prisoners’ Chorus, “O welche Lust, in freier Luft,” was glorious and moving. The choristers produced an evenly blended sound and the German consonants and endings were crisp and in unison, but not harsh.
Maestro Harry Bicket did a fantastic job juxtaposing the lighter Singspiel passages that portray the bliss of domestic life with the heroic, Schiller-inspired music depicting humanity’s highest ideals of brotherhood, conjugal devotion, and freedom from political oppression and injustice. This musical juxtaposition is a rather deliberate attempt by Beethoven to not only showcase ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but also to remind us that good and evil are not so easily singled out as an extremity; it has a way of infiltrating into ordinary, everyday life and its banalities. Rocco, the jailor, is not merely a submissive minion of an oppressive tyrant. He is morally conflicted about the orders he receives from Pizarro, but he is also a father who understands that any retaliation will jeopardize the security of his family’s future and well-being. A tough spot to be in. By the same token, Leonore, under her guise as the resourceful Fidelio, is very much leading the poor, unsuspecting Marzelline on in order to advance her own agenda. Thus our loyal and courageous protagonist is not entirely noble, while the order-following jailor displays instances of heroism and kindness (letting the prisoners out for some fresh air and offering Florestan wine, for example). Leonore does what she must to save her husband. Rocco, on the other hand, has much more to lose and little to gain by helping the prisoners.
Director Steven Wadsworth understands that Fidelio is not just an opera about ideals, but a drama about individual subjectivities, the complexities of human nature, and compassion. Hence, he gives as much of a spotlight to the working-class characters (Rocco, Marzelline, and Jaquino) as he does to the “heros” of the opera, Fidelio and Florestan. For this production, Wadsworth chose to set the story in a Nazi prison camp – a bit trite, but it works. After seeing his very human Ring Cycle in Seattle last summer (2013), I have come to have the greatest admiration for Mr. Wadsworth as someone who diligently does his homework to understand his characters, the composer’s intentions, and the historical context surrounding the operas he directs. In the program notes he talks about returning to Fidelio directly from the pre-Revolutionary France of Beaumarchais’ Figaro comedies, in which “the servant-class characters take charge of their own destinies.” He then poses the question of who is morally responsible for the crimes committed in the prison – the one who orders the sentence or the executioner? He contemplates the internal, moral struggle of those characters who are not heros: “Fidelio is a portrait of them and their tough, cheerless moral quandaries, no less than of Leonore and Florestan and their sublime yearning.” This production has certainly opened my eyes and made me question if the hero in this opera is not in fact Rocco. And as my saying goes, “a good performance gives you a new experience; a great performance offers you a new perspective.” Photo by Ken Howard © Santa Fe Opera Festival

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