We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Alex Penda and Paul Groves (photo by Ken Howard)
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.

This was an unusual choice for the Santa Fe Opera.  Although it is considered an opera, it has a great deal of spoken dialogue.  Although it has a happy ending it is not a comedy.  It has two major themes: the sacrifices of marital love and freedom from tyranny.  It's message is as valuable today as it was 200 years ago.

The orchestral music is as ravishing as anything Beethoven ever wrote and the Santa Fe Orchestra under the baton of the illustrious Harry Bicket (newly appointed Chief Conductor) did it justice with clean textures and rhythmic thrust.  The vocal lines are memorably melodic but challenging to sing; the game cast managed to carry it off with style.

The staging began even before the overture and introduced Leonore, disguised as Fidelio and serving as assistant to the jailer Rocco.  We also get to see Rocco's daughter Marzelline fussing about the kitchen of Charlie Corcoran's two-story set.  Jaquino, Rocco's other assistant, is importuning Marzelline to make marriage plans but she has fallen out of love with him and fallen into love with the recently arrived Fidelio.  One by one the voices join for a stunning quartet.

As Marzelline, the strong and silky soprano of Devon Guthrie (seen as an apprentice in 2010 and 2012) contrasted well with the sharper-edged soprano of Alex Penda as the titular Fidelio.  Ms. Penda was totally convincing as a young man but she is also very petite and at least a head shorter than Ms. Guthrie.  Yes, it is true that sometimes very tall women fall for very short men but it did look rather unbelievable onstage.

As the nice-guy jailer Rocco, Austrian bass Manfred Hemm sang with intensity and created a believable character.  As the spurned Jaquino, tenor Joshua Dennis used his fine voice and dramatic skills to make more of the role than is customary.

Leonore's husband does not appear until the second act but tenor Paul Groves made up for it, giving his all to his difficult aria and still managing to look as if he'd been in a dungeon for two years, imprisoned by his vicious enemy Pizzaro, portrayed with nasty gusto by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley.

Appearing at the end as a deus ex machina, Don Fernando comes to free all the prisoners.  The powerful and imposing bass-baritone Evan Hughes filled the shoes well.  Two members of the Apprentice Program made fine showings in brief solos as prisoners: the marvelous young tenor Joseph Dennis and the astounding bass Patrick Guetti.  We fully expect to see both their careers advancing rapidly.  So much talent at such a young age!

Not enough fine things could be said about the chorus, enacting prisoners desperate for freedom. Susanne Sheston gets big props as Chorus Master.

In spite of the superb orchestral and vocal performances we found Stephen Wadsworth's concept and direction to be distressing.  It is true that oppression exists everywhere and in all epochs but we fail to see how the Nazi holocaust has much to do with the political imprisonment of a small group of people. The concept was revealed gradually.  At the beginning it seemed to be anytime/anywhere but then a portrait of Hitler was exposed and Nazi uniforms appeared.

We found this to be at odds with the intentions of Beethoven and his librettists.  (There were several as he continually revised the opera.)  It seemed to be a graft that did not take.  We would have preferred a less specific setting that would have allowed us to make our own connections.

Furthermore, there are references to "the King".  Huh??? Which King?  And British soldiers coming in to liberate the prisoners and to hang the Union Jack? We don't like to see operas manipulated to fit into a Procrustean bed.

We liked Mr. Corcoran's realistic set.  On the ground floor were Fidelio's room and across a passageway, the kitchen.  Behold Ms. Guthrie as a drab German hausfrau! (Costumes were by Camille Assaf).  On the upper level were Pizzaro's office and some kind of waiting room.  Colors were all grey.

Duane Schuler's lighting was effective.  We liked the torches illuminating the dungeon and the sunlight when the prisoners were freed.

German diction was so perfect that subtitles were scarcely necessary.  Even the spoken dialogue was crisp and clear.

(c) meche kroop

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