|Derrell Acon, Malorie Casimir, and Kelly Griffin in Heartbeat Opera's radical Fidelio|
How is it that Beethoven only wrote one opera and spent a dozen years doing it? It must not have come easily to him. Indeed, he rewrote the overture to Fidelio several times and the opera as well. It premiered for the first time in 1805 in Vienna which was, at that time, under French rule. Largely influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution it was denied performance by the censors and only achieved production due to the intervention of Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa.
Two centuries later, Co-director of Heartbeat Opera Ethan Heard brought Beethoven's opera (actually, a singspiel with spoken dialogue) into the 21st century, emphasizing the need for social change in the important area of incarceration. In case you didn't know this, with only 5% of the world's population, the USA has 25% of the world's prisoners! And guess which racial group bears the brunt of this injustice! They make up about 37% of the prison population, which is thrice the percentage of their representation in the population of our nation.
In Mr. Heard's adaptation of the original libretto by Joseph and Georg Friedrich Sonnleithner, the role of Jaquino has been eliminated, shifting the focus of the opera to the interaction between three main characters--Leah (Leonora) the faithful wife, Roc (Rocco) the kind-hearted jailer, and Marcy (Marzellina) his daughter.
Playing the LGBTQ card, Mr. Heard has made Marcy a lesbian so that Leah needn't pretend to be a man. Roc pushes the two women to get together! It was a an interesting directorial choice but did not contribute much to the impact of this iteration and seemed to distract us from the main thrust of the story.
By way of contrast, an addition that contributed enormously to the impact of the story was the use of actual prison choirs to sing the prisoners' chorus. No, they were not released from prison and put onstage. Mr. Heard traveled to the Midwest with Daniel Schlosberg as accompanist and recorded prison choirs on video.
This part of the performance was incredibly moving for us; as we listened, we wondered what this meant in the lives of the incarcerated men and women who participated. Did it give them hope in the face of despair, which was Beethoven's intention? Did music serve to soften their rage at society and any injustices they suffered? We need not have wondered. Grateful letters from the inmates were posted in the lobby.
Now this is opera we are reviewing and not politics but surely music, and especially opera, can serve political ends. (We'd love to see an opera shaming our pussy-grabbing POTUS.)
The singers did very well in the vocal and acting department. As the eponymous Fidelio, we heard soprano Kelly Griffin whom we so enjoyed as one of Daniel Cardona's large voiced "finds". She impressed us as a different Leonore, the one in Verdi's Forza del Destino with New Amsterdam Opera.
Mr. Heard and Marcus Scott wrote a spoken prologue for her, by way of exposition. Way upstage, she agonized over her husband's unjust incarceration. She explained to a slightly sympathetic but unavailable pro bono attorney that her husband was not a criminal but a political activist. He'd broken no laws but had been incarcerated without any contact with the outside world. She lost her temper at the lawyer's indifference. We felt her frustration and anguish.
This prologue set us up for the 90 minute tight retelling of the tale. After winning the confidence of Roc and offering the possibility of romance to Marcy, she succeeded in giving the prisoners a half hour outdoors. When called on the carpet for this act, it was attributed to a celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
Bass-baritone Derrell Acon was a powerful Roc, singing forcefully and creating a character who wavered between obedience to authority and human compassion. Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you're told. Obedience is doing what you're told regardless of what is right.
As Marcy, we were very happy to have another opportunity to enjoy the pleasing light soprano and winning stage presence of soprano Malorie Casimir, whose Sophie and Zerlina we had previously and enthusiastically reviewed.
Leah's husband Stan (Florestan) was not one of the prisoners released into the yard. He was being kept in a secret cell in solitary confinement because the Warden (effective bass-baritone Daniel Klein), a thoroughly evil character, planned to murder him in his cell after depriving him of sustenance for a very long time.
The role of Stan was sung by tenor Nelson Ebo who, it was announced, was indisposed. His indisposition took away the luster of his voice but actually made him very believable. He sounded as one might expect someone to sound who had been shackled and starved! But we want to hear him when he is healthy!
The scene in which Roc and Leah descend into the subterranean reaches of the prison was particularly effective as they navigated through the balcony of the theater (the Rose Nagelberg Theater of Baruch Performing Arts Center) carrying lanterns against the dark, climbing up and down.
It would not be an overstatement to say that we were on the edge of our seat for 90 minutes of rapt attention. We know the plot of the work but we didn't know what Mr. Heard was going to do with it. We won't tell you. You will have to find out for yourself.
What we will tell you is that we absolutely adored Maestro Daniel Shlosberg's arrangement for chamber orchestra, which included two pianos, a pair of horns and a pair of cellos. Schlosberg conducted from the piano and Ben Cornavaca contributed some stunning effects with percussion.
Reid Thompson's set was minimalistic--a few desks and chairs, well lit by Oliver Wason. Costuming by Valérie Thérèse Bart comprised prison uniforms.
Thinking about the mission of Heartbeat Opera and it's two Co-
Artistic Directors (Mr. Heard and Ms. Proske), there is no denying that they put old wine in new barrels and make opera accessible to a new generation. Indeed, Heartbeat Opera makes a sizable number of free tickets available to students. We rode up in the elevator with a group of them who very much enjoyed the performance.
This revolutionary company deserves your support!
(c) meche kroop