Beethoven’s Fidelio opened the 2011-12 season at Utah Opera last week on Saturday 8th, and newoutpost was present at the occasion, as well as the second performance on Monday 10th. We are happy to report that the performances receive high marks due to the efforts of an altogether great cast, though the visual direction of these presentations proved a little suspect.
Working with a production designed for Virginia Opera, director Eric Einhorn avoided setting the work to a specific time period, though going by some of the hairstyles and uniforms the action is set sometime in the 1940s. Various aspects of the direction, such as Marzelline’s straddling a coat rack she has fashioned to resemble Fidelio, or the choreographed movements performed by the soloists during the first and second act quartets, leaned towards the distracting. At worst, this treatment corrupted the archetypal elements of the work and the result verged on caricature. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Mr. Einhorn’s treatment of the character of Pizarro, whose entrance inspired unexpected giggling from several members of the audience on both nights I attended. The opera’s evil villain entered in a knee length black leather trench coat, greasy black ponytail and an eye-patch, bringing to mind a Steven Segal character as interpreted by Party City. Just in case we were not convinced of the character’s unsavory nature, Pizarro killed a soldier and removed his eye-patch during the delivery of his aria “Ha, welch ein Augenblick” (“Ha! What a moment!”) to show the world his gruesome battle scars. If the intent was to elevate Pizarro to the evil presence described in the orchestra (its all there already) this was not successfully achieved. The irony was made even heavier when, during intermission, I found a photo of Mr. Mark Schnaible (the Pizarro in this production) in the playbill: His headshot was more “Pizarro” than Mr. Einhorn’s vision of this character!
Other surprises were in store, including a parade of extraneous “apparitions” throughout several musical numbers (women holding wedding rings in their hands, a cloaked Leonore appearing before Florestan during his hallucination, etc). These additions distracted from Beethoven and reverted the attention to the director’s intentions with a giant question mark. The one unforgivable moment of sacrilege took place during the prisoner’s chorus in Act One. Beethoven’s music, full of light and hope tells of the “wide open air,” yet it was sung in what appeared to be a subterranean prison. To be fair, Mr. Einhorn made up for some of this through his realization of the character of the jailer Rocco, which will be discussed at length below, but for the most part I was thankful for my eyelids.
When the ears focused on the musical merits of these performances, I found concerns with the leadership of conductor Richard Buckley. The famous overture lacked a cohesive shape, and it jarred the ear as clumsy and abrupt, perhaps the result of irregularities in tempo. The opera’s opening duet suffered from this, and the principals struggled to keep line with the foundation set from the pit. More troublesome was maestro Buckley’s grave pace when interpreting some of the big musical highlights (Leonore’s Act One aria, the prisoner’s chorus, and especially Florestan’s entrance in Act Two), yet a clear change took place in the middle of the opera’s rescue quartet, where the orchestra suddenly took off like a bat out of hell until the scene came to a complete, hurried close. While some of these issues were somewhat rectified during the second performance, the conductor’s baton remained generally indecisive: Either quicksand or rushed. To his credit, the mighty forces of the Utah Symphony did respond to the maestro in terms of establishing a majestic sonority that never undermined the voices. Lucky for all, the production boasted able principals capable of keeping up with some of these incongruencies.
At the heart of these performances was the Leonore of soprano Brenda Harris, who delivered a strongly impassioned, yet feminine portrayal of Beethoven’s heroine. The casting of this revolutionary role is traditionally reserved to the stock of artists well versed in the Wagnerian and Straussian repertoire, but that musical school was unknown in Beethoven’s time. Instead, the composer tailored his score for dramatic voices trained in the Mozartian, Baroque and Bel Canto styles. Thus, hearing this music in the hands of a great exponent of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito”, Bellini’s “Norma” and Handel’s “Agrippina” presented itself as a rare treat that simply could not be passed up. Following the relatively whimsical musical exchanges between Jaquino and Marzelline. Ms. Harris’s Leonore entered the stage with the troubles in her heart already apparent, and when she uttered her part in the quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” the gravitational pull of her declamation informed the ear that the extraordinary had arrived. More importantly for the opera, Beethoven’s musical message materialized with profound clarity: While all that has gone before is certainly important and deserving of thorough orchestration, Leonore’s entrance marks the arrival of a different musical personality, one that in Beethoven represents a heightened morality envisioned by the school of German idealism.
The sonic demands of the role increased from here on, and as Leonore joined voices with Rocco and Marzelline in the trio “Gut, Söhnchen, gut, hab’ immer Mut”, a laser, focused sound pealed out in generous quantities, capable of escalating unimpaired in evenness and force up to a tremendous A flat. This trio, as well as several musical numbers in the opera, makes sudden demands on the singer’s flexibility through flashes of ornate music, demands which have lessen the impression of other Leonores in the past. This was not the case with Ms. Harris, and ultimately what impressed throughout was not only the incessant stream of her large and sumptuous voice, but also its malleability and her skill in manipulating it. Her voice caressed, stabbed and accomplished all musical hurdles with complete assurance. The soprano’s musical apex in the first act, the aria “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin!” proved that she certainly executes this music like few artists today can. The aria’s orchestral introduction, a storm of emotions played out in the string section, was silenced as Ms. Harris’ voice pierced through the auditorium. As she negotiated her soliloquy, the very fact that she made music out of the impossibly slow tempo set by the maestro laid testament to her exceptional breath control, and indeed she did much that was unique: My ear singled out the inward quality of “Die liebe, sie wird’s erreichen, ja, ja, sie wird’s erreichen” (“Love will reach it, yes yes, love will reach it”) which moved the heart as a vivid sentiment from the eponymous composer himself. The teutonic pyrotechnics of the allegro section, beginning with “Ich folg’ dem inner Triebe” (“I follow an inner impulsion”) were executed with exemplary accuracy and élan, never diminished in volume or legato: The very definition of bravura singing.
Having established the ability to sing Leonore’s phrases, however, is not enough, and Act Two demands the primadonna to become Leonore as a symbol of freedom. Ms. Harris was certainly in the zone as she entered with Rocco to dig her husband’s grave. Her participation in this act consisted of four important ensembles, and each showcased a different facet of this singer’s art. First her voice was rendered tense and alarmed, when the resolution to free the unknown prisoner at all cost came, Ms. Harris raised the statement with such resolution, she virtually hailed all symbols of justice unto the stage. The mind could not help but muse: It’s going down. Upon recognizing her husband, the color of her song transitioned from dread to unbearable sorrow, and as she offered Florestan some bread it became clear that Leonore knew deep inside that her husband was to die never knowing who she was in these final moments, and thus sure that her final words to Florestan were full of beauty and consolation. The moment of truth came during the famous quartet, and with the tension at its fever pitch Ms. Harris stopped Pizarro’s murderous hand with a blood curling ‘Zuruck!” If during the prior duet she hailed the very presence of lady liberty, it was during this quartet that she vocally doused her with gasoline and set the sacred symbol of freedom on fire (Mr. Mortier, please don’t get any ideas.) From this point forward, the maestro’s tempo took unexpected flight, and the ensemble struggled to retain its cohesiveness. This also affected the ensuing duet between the united couple, and save a gorgeous use of messa di voce, one was left to admire Ms. Harris’ ability to simply keep up.
All this should not to imply that Ms. Harris is free of weaknesses. At times a tremulous beat affects her emissions when unleashed at their loudest levels, and it cannot be said that she made an altogether convincing young man, but this ranks as an acceptable trade offs in exchange of an artist so willing to place a lifetime of training in the service of her art. Furthermore, these performances mark Ms. Harris’ debut in Fidelio, so this already world-class interpretation is likely to deepen and develop into something as sublime as her Norma.
Ms. Harris was well matched by the Florestan of tenor Corey Bix, a young artist possessing a clarion instrument of great emotive quality and tonal beauty. Since Florestan spends the entirety of the first act languishing in the depths of the prison’s dungeon, great anticipation loomed as the audience awaited his arrival in Act Two. Mr. Bix’s delivery of the opening phrase “Gott!” on a sustained high G reassured all that it had been well worth the wait. In terms of clarity, steadiness and size, it was awesome. He delivered the phrases of his great aria “In des Lebens Fruhlingstagen” via an admirable legato, a feat made more impressive when taking into account the maestro’s funereal pace. The allegro section, beginning with “Und spur’ ich nicht linde, sanft sauselnde Luft?” (“And are not soft breezes caressing me here?”) exposes Florestan’s failing mind as the image of Leonore appears to him dressed as an angel. Musically, it dictates a cruel ascent towards a high B flat in the fortissimo dynamic to give the effect of the declining state of the poor man’s body and mind. This Mr. Bix accomplished without any audible strain, and the top notes opened up in a very exciting matter.
Florestan is a short role, and Mr. Bix took every advantage to showcase his fresh young sound during the remaining ensembles. The exciting voice aside, Mr. Bix was also a sensitive artist, one who colored his words with care. During his participation in the trio “Euch werde Lohn in besser’ n Welten”, his voice was already in on its way to another place, creating great contrast with Ms. Harris’ tense utterances. During the terrifyingly fast “O namenlose Freude!”, he managed to still shape his phrases in a melting way to portray the joy of this once doomed man now rescued. The bronze in his tenor shines at times a little bright for this music, which otherwise seems ideally suited for his talents, and a darker hue was wanting during the opera’s spectacular finale. Alas, we certainly do not suggest that he artificially darken his instrument: He is a young god, and eventually the careeer will do that for him. In the meantime, one can expect a future Tristan or Jean de Leyden from this throat if Mr. Bix instrument continues to grow.
Top notices are also reserved for the work of bass Gustav Andreassen in the role of Rocco, achieved surely in collaboration with Mr. Einhorn. In the hands of Mr. Andreassen, Beethoven’s pragmatic jailer was sung with dignity and a wealth of detail. When the opera begins, Rocco, much like Jaquino and Marzelline, initially dims towards the background as a minor character. His aria, “Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben” (“If you do not have gold”) exposes a man of common sense, concerned with his daughter’s financial future and her subsequent happiness. But like the lighter characters, his condition does not rise to the full heights of human nobility, and Mr. Andreassen’s declamation captured this in vivid detail: He was the caring father, the easy going authoritative figure, and a man concerned with practical matters. Rocco begins to turn the page when Pizarro attempts to involve him in the plot to murder Florestan. The dormant nobility within him is stirred, and when later in the act he is confronted by the angry governor as to why the prisoners have been allowed to leave their cells, Mr. Andreassen stood his ground defiantly and provided an obviously ludicrous retort.
Unlike Jaquino and Marzelline, Rocco descends to the dungeon with Leonore in Act Two, and he returns to the prison’s courtyard a changed man. Although torn by Fidelio’s pleas for pity upon the prisoner, Rocco tries to convince the young man to stay on task. Mr. Andreassens cool and subdued phrasing contrasted greatly to Ms. Harris’ tense declamation. This raised the musical and emotional ante, and as he attempted to hold Fidelio from physically charging at the governor’s dagger, the shock of Leonore’s great sacrifice fully lifted the veil from his eyes: He has been set free by Leonore as well. When Jaquino rushes in to announce the arrival of the minister, Mr. Andreassen’s outcry of “Gelobt sei Gott!” (“Praise be to God!”) exposed Rocco as Beethoven’s practical advise to humankind: We need a Leonore, an extraordinary human being, to give us the courage to embrace that which is righteous and noble. Mr. Andreassen’s work virtually reassessed a character that is all too often dismissed as comic relief, and this was no small accomplishment.
There were, to be sure, some weaknesses in the lineup of principals. In his portrayal of the evil Governor Pizarro, baritone Mark Schnaible failed to satisfy as Beethoven’s malevolent operatic archetype. A hint of what the composer may have wanted can be deduced by the fact that Pizarro’s introductory aria employs the entire forces of the orchestra for the first time in the opera.
Perhaps Beethoven, like Verdi in Otello’s great entrance, wanted to create an overpowering effect, and the ideal Pizarro must generate a sort of musical black hole through song: All should gravitate towards darkness. On both evenings, Mr. Schnaible’s declamation came drastically short of this ideal, yet it certainly was not due for lack of commitment on his part. As stated before, his character was made to engage in some rather silly shenanigans, but to his credit, Mr. Schnaible came across as fully engaged in his task. The albatross of this performance could ultimately be found in his junior vocal resources, and though he was perfectly audible throughout the evening, he was unable to muster the necessary vocal presence to do this role justice. He may be a good singer and a committed artist, but he does not possess the necessary voice of evil, and this is the basic requirement for any singer attempting this role.
As Jaquino, Peter Tantsits cut a handsome figure while projecting an easy lyric tenor across the footlights. Though his involvement in the opera is limited, he accomplished much through his elegant phrasing and engaging stage presence. His counterpart, Marzelline, was sung by Shannon Kessler Dooley, who was perhaps inspired by the bigger cannons onstage and unleashed a loud, yet strident soprano that occasionally showed flashes of a lovely lyric quality. This was unfortunate, because she denied herself the opportunity to make a positive impression through contrast. Instead, she was heard many times protruding beyond the sleeve of sound in a way less than becoming of her obvious talents. Finally, baritone Gregory Pearson completed the cast with his assumption of the benevolent Don Fernando, whose sparse phrases were delivered with a rich, firm tone worthy of bigger assignments.
Despite its shortcomings, Utah Opera’s Fidelio is a must see event for the sheer fact that it boasts an incandescent Leonore and an exciting Florestan (we do not live in a time where such voices are in great abundance). If you missed Fidelio’s run (there is a final performance scheduled for this afternoon at 2 pm,) please visit the company’s website at http://www.utahopera.org for information on the remainder of their season.