Beethoven, Fidelio

A fantastic Fidelio at the Staatsoper.  Otto Schenk originally designed this production for the Theater an der Wien in 1970, and in 1991 a modified version moved to the big stage on the Ring (with Erich Leinsdorf on the podium).  Simple and appropriate, the staging allowed the music to provide the drama.

Indeed, Beethoven’s music indeed marks the triumph of this opera.  This is an opera that everyone knows and which people have heard recordings of frequently, but somehow (based on an unscientific survey among my friends) no one ever actually sees (better to hear than to see, I suppose).  I think I have seen it twice myself, both times at the Met (first under Leinsdorf and later under Klaus Tennstedt) in the early 1980s, but not since.  The first act is a bunch of set pieces according to operatic tradition of the time – beautiful music but little drama.  The second act provides a monument to human freedom, couched in a typical nonsensical period rescue plot to pass the censors, with the music doing the heavy lifting. So in a successful production of Fidelio, the music must take precedence, and the staging should only provide a venue for the music.

And what better placeis there to enjoy this music?  Shortly after the Russian occupation forces withdrew from Vienna in 1955, the Staatsoper (which had taken a direct hit froman American bomb in the closing days of the Second World War) reopened from the ruins.  Fidelio was the first opera on the newly rebuilt stage. In this year featuring many commemorations of the Anschluß 75 years ago, the Staatsoper has dusted off the Schenk production and a Vienna Ensemble cast.  The Orchestra, under the baton of Adam Fischer (a Hungarian Jew who recently resigned as Music Director of the Budapest State Opera due to increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary), played in full dramatic form.  From the first strains of the Fidelio Overture through the final chorus, the music brought everyone to the edge of our seats, toyed with our emotions, and lifted us up.  The Leonore Overture #3, used as an interlude in the middle of Act 2 as per the Vienna tradition started when Gustav Mahler led this opera house, particularly brought down the house, and forced the orchestra to take several standing bows.

The Vienna Ensemble cast also mostly did not disappoint.  Anje Kampe headed the effort as Leonore.  The Moldovan Valentina Naforniƫă, the winner of the 2011 Cardiff competition which has justifiably launched the careers of so many worthy stars in the past (including Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel splitting the honors in the famous 1989 competition), has recently joined the Vienna Ensemble and providedan exceptional Marzelline.  Norbert Ernstas Jaquino and Walter Fink as Rocco ensured that the quartets in Act 1 remained balanced at a fine level, with strong projection, clear tones, and expressive acting.

The Staatsoper may have engaged Lance Ryan, the Canadian tenor making a guest appearance as Florestan, in order to guarantee that the only non-Vienna cast member provided the disappointment, singing consistently sharp and wobbly.  At first, I assumed he must have intended to produce these sounds as special effects for his character, who appears in weak condition after two years in deplorable conditions as a political prisoner.  However, as Act 2 progressed, it became clear that this ugly instrument was indeed his voice.  By the final curtain calls, when everyone got roaring approval from the audience, the polite members of theaudience simply refused to clap for him (I, for one, stopped clapping during his curtain call), while others went further in a hail of boos.  But the overall drama of the night more than overshadowed Ryan, and if he was the only flaw in the package then I would gladly accept to sit through that performance again and again.

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