Friday, May 16, 2003

Beethoven’s only opera is a bit of a curiosity. It’s firmly set in the German “singspiel” (sung drama with spoken dialogue) tradition. It’s relatively short.

It isn’t loaded with singable tunes, unlike the Italian operas of Verdi and Puccini that Washington audiences crave on a regular basis. Its music veers from the firmly classical into sudden outbursts of romantic heroism. And its plot is more than a bit contrived and melodramatic — not unusual in the world of opera, but still an obstacle for a modern audience.

Nonetheless, “Fidelio” remains firmly entrenched in the repertoire because, well, it’s written by Beethoven. It takes a great cast and crew and a strong director to really get things pumping onstage. Fortunately, the Washington Opera has all of the above. Its new production of the opera, now playing at DAR Constitution Hall, is a real triumph, a magnificent way to close out its 2002-2003 season.

The plot of “Fidelio” is a feminist reverse of the old damsel-in-distress tale. Don Pizarro, the governor in charge of a huge prison, has incarcerated his old political enemy, Florestan. Pizarro decides to get rid of him when he learns that Florestan’s friend, Don Fernando, the king’s minster, is riding into town to snoop around. Pizarro’s jailer, Rocco, along with a young assistant, Fidelio, are to dig out a cistern in which to hide Florestan’s body. Fidelio is really Leonore, Florestan’s enterprising wife, who has joined the prison staff to see if her husband is still alive and possibly to rescue him. In the background, a comic subplot creaks along, in which Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline, spurns her inept suitor, Jaquino, in favor of Fidelio.

The premise is creaky, but the music is delightful, and in the finale genuinely inspiring. Director Francesca Zambello’s effective postmodern concept is largely successful in getting the audience to suspend their collective disbelief. She is fortunate that Peter J. Davison’s unobtrusive prison set gives the cast full run of Constitution Hall’s new thrust stage.

Her conceit of having Pizarro and his soldiers dressed up as neo-Nazis who also occasionally wander around intimidating the audience under roving spotlights with German shepherds in tow renders the plot reasonably plausible for a 21st century audience that has seen too much of this sort of thing in real life.

The cast of singers couldn’t be better suited to the challenges of Beethoven’s score. As Leonore, soprano Susan B. Anthony provides a believably robust mix of swagger and femininity. Her voice is strong and clear, and she projects it well, although there were a few moments of uncertainty on opening night.

Soprano Korliss Uecker is a slightly ditsy but affecting Marzelline, coming through with a forceful performance. Her suitor, Jaquino, portrayed by tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer, isn’t given a lot to do by Beethoven, but his early aria is delivered with a nice twinkle of humor.

Poor Florestan doesn’t show up until the second act, and he’s in pretty bad shape when he does. Still, that doesn’t stop tenor Christopher Ventris from turning in an affecting, well-calibrated vocal performance in this role, particularly in his opening Act II aria.

The two bass-baritone heavies, Tom Fox (Don Pizarro) and Alan Held (Don Fernando), provide ballast to the evening, even though their roles are relatively small. A really bad guy, swaggering like an officer in the Gestapo, Mr. Fox’s Pizarro snarls with menace, barking out his sung lines as much as singing them, palpably intimidating the rest of the cast. As deus ex machina Don Fernando, Alan Held creates a surprisingly authoritarian figure. Sure, he brings justice to the prison, but we also get the sense that he is another strongman not to be messed with.

The biggest surprise of the evening has to be bass Eric Halfvarson’s portrayal of Rocco. This can be an ambiguous role, but Mr. Halfvarson makes the most of it. Nuancing his character in ways we can appreciate in the aftermath of the Iraq War, he plays the jailer in some ways like a minor Ba’ath Party functionary. He’s just a party hack doing his job. He is pretty uncomfortable with it, but he knows he and his family would be even more uncomfortable if they were to cross Don Pizarro. So he hangs in there but squirms with guilt. Vocally, Mr. Halfvarson is powerful and sure, booming out his musical observations to the farthest reaches of the hall.

A quick and appreciative hat tip to the chorus for delivering an extraordinarily moving rendition of the opera’s famous Prisoner’s Chorus near the end of Act I. Their eyes blinking in the bright sunlight (“O Welche Lust”), the male ensemble sings longingly of the freedom they have lost while retaining a flicker of rebellion and defiance in their hearts.

It was good to have music director Heinz Fricke back at the helm. Under his direction, this opera really did sound like Beethoven, blending classical crispness with romantic heroics. Die-hard Beethoven fans will miss the popular “Leonore No. 3” overture, frequently, if arbitrarily, inserted before the second stanza of the finale. Mr. Fricke has wisely chosen to cut it here, considerably aiding Miss Zambello’s sense of dramatic flow.

As successful as this production is, it is not without its flaws. The dirt-filled railroad flatcar, for example, was nicely post-industrial but also a little incongruous, as was Marzelline’s gardening within its confines and her inexplicable desire to roll in the dirt. Perhaps this was all symbolic of the excavation scene in Act II, but it came across as silly — as did Marzelline’s 1950s Milwaukee housewife costume, designed, as were other more successful ones, by Anita Yavich. The plastic tulips in the finale also looked a little goofy, although they were a forgivable solution to the prison’s monochromatic dreariness.

Most curious was the pantomimed demonstration scene interpolated during the opera’s overture. On one hand, it was an interesting touch that provided a plausible back story for Miss Zambello’s directorial vision, but this tableaux, upon reflection, was jarringly at odds with Beethoven’s extended hymn to freedom.

Quibbles aside, this “Fidelio” is a stirring, marvelously enjoyable — and timely — evening of musical theater.


WHAT: Washington Opera’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; and May 24 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $42 to $285

PHONE: 202/295-2400 (or check the Washington Opera Web site at RATING: FOUR STAR

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