26 October 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – FIDELIO (M. Katzarava, A. Richards, R. Suarez Groen, B. Arreola, A. Funk, K. Pfortmiller, D. Boye; Opera Carolina, 25 October 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: The cast of Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Fidelio, Opus 72Maria Katzarava (Leonore), Andrew Richards (Florestan), Raquel Suarez Groen (Marzelline), Brian Arreola (Jaquino), Kyle Pfortmiller (Don Pizarro), Andrew Funk (Rocco), Dan Boye (Don Fernando), (Erster Gefangener), (Zweiter Gefangener); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Tom Diamond, Director; Michael Baumgarten, Director of Production & Lighting Designer; Dejan Miladinović, Set Designer; Martha Ruskai, Wig & Make-up Designer; A T Jones and Sons, Inc., Costume Designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; Sunday, 25 October 2015]

​If, as Charles Dickens suggested with his affection for David Copperfield, those artistic progeny that cost their creators the greatest effort are the most beloved of their creations, Fidelio surely occupied a prominent place in Ludwig van Beeth​oven's heart. Premièred in its first, three-act form in Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1805, Fidelio underwent extensive revisions that ultimately spanned nearly a decade of the composer's career. Reduced via Georg Friedrich Treitschke's amendments to Joseph Sonnleithner's libretto, already modified in 1805 – 1806 by Stephan von Breuning, to the two-act form in which the score is most familiar today, the opera was reintroduced to the Viennese public in 1814. Even in its earlier, more florid guise, which now hovers on the periphery of the repertory as Leonore, Fidelio was immediately recognized not only as a work of genius—what else might have been expected from the mind of Beethoven?—but also as a seminal work in the artistic representation of conjugal love. That it utterly eclipsed similar works like Ferdinando Paer's 1804 dramma semiserio Leonora and Johann Simon Mayr's 1805 farsa sentimentale L'amore coniugale ossia Il custode di buon cuore, both of which were, like Fidelio, adaptations of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's French libretto for Pierre Gaveaux's 1798 opera Léonore ou L'amour conjugal, is indicative both of the profundity of Beethoven's setting and the extraordinary quality of the music. The effectiveness of the unmarried Beethoven's depiction of the sanctity of marriage is evidenced by the fact that it was once customary for newly-engaged German-speaking couples to attend performances of Fidelio as a primer in the art of becoming devoted, well-integrated spouses. In the same manner as Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin, it is ironic that a man with as anguished an association with the institution of matrimony as was Beethoven's lot should have produced an archetypal representation of spousal commitment, but perhaps there is in Fidelio an essence of what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote that 'Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed.' It was not by luck of the draw that it was Fidelio that was chosen to re-inaugurate the Wiener Staatsoper in 1955, when that fabled house, the stage and auditorium of which were destroyed in World War II, symbolically and literally returned to its rejuvenated home. Fidelio is something special, a phoenix in its own right that has endured the flames of changing fashions. Transporting the opera's drama from Beethoven's Spain to Berlin on the eve of the destruction of the Wall that seemed to figuratively divide humanity as a whole, Opera Carolina's thoughtful, often riveting production of Fidelio took risks that recalled another of Emily Dickinson's iconic conceits: ''Tis not that Dying hurts us so — / 'Tis living — hurts us more.'

When taken at face value, the de facto mission statement cited on Opera Carolina's website for this production is a worrying manifestation of the currently-fashionable predilection for prioritizing efforts at making opera superficially accessible for modern audiences above honoring composers' wishes. 'The fact that Fidelio is the great Beethoven's only opera is unique enough,' the statement begins. 'How do you make it even more fresh and meaningful?'​ How can an opera that deals with a wife who disguises herself as a man in order to gain access to and subsequently liberate her husband from unjust political imprisonment be made more relevant to a society besmirched by wars among power-hungry factions, refugee crises, unfettered corruption, and basest inhumanity? In Opera Carolina's production, insightfully directed by Tom Diamond and expertly lit by Michael Baumgarten, who also created the evocative projections, the endeavor to increase Fidelio's ability to engage the audience prompted relocating the action from Beethoven's and his librettists' Eighteenth-Century Spain to Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Opera Carolina's 2014 production of Verdi's Nabucco went wrong temporarily when anachronistically referencing the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust in the context of an otherwise traditionally Biblical setting, but this Fidelio shouldered the burden of its new identity without transferring any of the weight of reinterpretation onto the audience's backs. Via the aptly drab costumes by A T Jones and Sons, Inc., Martha Ruskai's wig and make-up designs, and the stark backdrops of Dejan Miladinović's sets, Beethoven's characters convincingly became citizens of 1989 Berlin. The magnanimous Don Fernando, Fidelio's deus ex machina, was Walter Momper, the first mayor of newly-reunified Berlin. The malevolent Stasi official Walter Ulbricht stood in for Beethoven's Don Pizarro, and his political nemesis Florestan was represented in the Twentieth Century by advocate for democracy Kurt Wismach. Young Jaquino was metamorphosed into Chris Gueffroy, one of the last people killed whilst attempting to scale the Berlin Wall. The production was tasteful and moving, but the source of the emotional power was always Beethoven's music. Recorded contributions by Presidents Kennedy ('Ich bin ein Berliner') and Reagan ('Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall') prefaced the opera's first and final scenes, respectively, and perhaps the most successful departure from tradition was staging Leonore's physical transformation into Fidelio during the Ouvertüre. Transplanting the action into 1989 Berlin gave the opera an atmosphere remembered by most of the audience, but changing characters' names went slightly too far. In practical terms, how many people are more familiar with the names Wismach, Ulbricht, and Momper than with Florestan, Pizarro, and Fernando? If a Twentieth-Century setting was deemed necessary, why not relocate the opera to Franco's Spain and thereby retain the characters' names and fidelity to the text that Beethoven set? Concerns about textual changes notwithstanding, the production proved that Beethoven's score, one of the true masterworks of Western civilization, is eternally 'fresh and meaningful.' In this regard, the production was an unmitigated triumph. [For this review, Beethoven’s original character names and the text as it appears in the score are used.]

IN PERFORMANCE: The Company of Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]O welch ein Augenblick: the Company of Opera Carolina’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]

With Opera Carolina's General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena on the podium, the task of upholding musical values in this production of Fidelio was entrusted to one of America's ablest conductors of opera, one whose versatility reflects encyclopedic knowledge of repertory and trial-by-fire experience extending back to his formative engagements in Toledo and Pittsburgh. This broad experience is of particular importance when conducting Fidelio, a score in which musical traditions intersect. The music for Marzelline and Jaquino inhabits the world of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte, whereas the writing for Rocco and Don Pizarro combines elements of the Baroque, Classicism, and Romanticism. Leonore is both a heroine in the tradition of Händel's Rodelinda and Deidamia and a prototype for the leading ladies of Weber and Wagner, and Florestan, introduced in Act Two by music that could have been composed by Wagner, Mahler, or Richard Strauss, is an intriguing hybrid, equal parts bel canto and Heldentenor. The act finales are, like Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, sui generis. A conductor who lacks exposure to all of the disparate ingredients that Beethoven combined in the score is at risk of being out to sea in the tempestuous waters of Fidelio, but in this performance Meena masterfully tamed the savage challenges of the music. Spurred by Meena's leadership the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musicians provided a spirited performance of the opera's familiar Ouvertüre, the writing for horns and woodwinds inspiring the musicians to feats of commendable virtuosity. The Marsch that introduces Don Pizarro in Act One was also vigorously played. The crucial but often-blundered horn parts in Leonore's 'Abscheulicher!' scene were fantastically done except for an all-too-audible mistake in the second statement of the fanfare that introduces 'Ich folg' dem innern Triebe,' and the plangent oboe phrases in Florestan's scene at the start of Act Two were beautifully played. Meena proved refreshingly adept at conveying the grandeur of Beethoven's music without miring the score in pseudo-Wagnerian pomposity. In both his attentive support of the singers and his management of the orchestra, he facilitated appreciation of the fact that Beethoven, though unquestionably a visionary, was also a contemporary of Cherubini, Mayr, and Spontini.

The Opera Carolina Chorus sang splendidly, giving strong but heartfelt performances of some of the most difficult choral writing in opera. The charge was often made during the composer's lifetime that Beethoven never truly learned how to write effective, singable music for the human voice, but the choristers' singing in this performance verified that, when adequately rehearsed and sung with gusto, Beethoven's choruses in Fidelio are unforgettably satisfying. The haunting chorus that launches the Act One finale, 'O welche Lust,' was stirringly sung, and the prisoners' poignant 'Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht, schnell schwindest du uns wieder' touched the heart. In the Act Two finale, the choristers' exclamations of 'Heil! Heil! Heil sei dem Tag, Heil sei der Stunde' seemed to resound with the collective voice of humanity. The jubilant 'Wer ein holdes Weib errungen, stimm in unsern Jubel ein,' a rather banal tune like the principal themes of the finales of the Choral Fantasy and the Ninth Symphony, was performed with unfettered joy befitting a paean to newly-won liberty. It is unfortunate and unfair that the tenor and bass who emerged from the chorus to sing the First and Second Prisoners' solo lines were not identified and granted the notice that their singing deserved. Both the tenor's 'Wir wollen mit Vertrauen auf Gottes Hülfe' and the bass's 'Specht leise, haltet euch zurück, wir sind belauscht mit Ohr und Blick' were confidently, appealingly done.

Under the guise of Walter Momper, bass-baritone Dan Boye was a Don Fernando of firm-toned magnanimity. He delivered 'Des besten Königs Wink und Wille führt mich zu euch' with the ceremonial pontification of a career politician, but his words rang with sincerity and emotion. Directing 'Du schlossest auf des Edlen Grab, jetzt, jetzt nimm ihm seine Ketten ab; doch halt' to Rocco, his voice seemed to grow in authority as the on-stage populace reacted to his words. Then, addressing Leonore, he sang 'euch, edle Frau, allein, euch ziemt es, ganz ihn zu befrein' with true feeling, restoring to Leonore and Florestan the happiness for which they have suffered so direly.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano MARIA KATZARAVA as Leonore in Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]Sein Weib: Soprano Maria Katzarava as Leonore in Opera Carolina’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]

Thankfully, Opera Carolina's production spared Jaquino the fate of the historical Chris Gueffroy, who was fatally shot in 1989 as he attempted to flee East Berlin at the age of only twenty. Looking dashing in his Stasi uniform and sounding even better, Opera Carolina stalwart tenor Brian Arreola was a silver-throated bundle of nerves. In the Act One duet with Marzelline, Arreola voiced 'Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein' handsomely, and he conveyed Jaquino's increasing exasperation with body language rather than stridency in the voice. In the exquisite quartet, one of the finest ensembles in opera, he sang 'Mir sträubt sich schon das Haar' with sincerity and star-in-the-making tone. Here and in the finales of both acts he was always audible. He excelled at spoken and sung German, and he again displayed what an asset he is to Opera Carolina's roster.

Soprano Raquel Suarez Groen lent Marzelline measures of humor and humanity that made her part in the opera more vital that many singers have made it. Beginning with the charming duet with Jaquino that opens Act One, she took advantage of every opportunity for detailed characterization that Beethoven gave to her. She sang 'Es wird ja nichts Wichtiges sein' delightfully, the repeated top Gs and coloratura cresting on top A employed to impart Marzelline’s growing frustration with Jaquino’s refusal to accept that she is in love with Fidelio. Suarez Groen sang Marzelline’s Mozartean aria 'O wär' ich schon mit dir vereint, und dürfte Mann dich nennen!' deftly, and, unlike many Marzellines, she ensured that her presence was noticed in the quartet by phrasing 'Mir ist so wunderbar, es engt das Herz mir ein' imaginatively and dexterously negotiating the coloratura. Joining Leonore and Rocco in their fantastic trio, she declaimed 'Dein gutes Herz wird manchen Schmerz in diesen Grüften leiden' beautifully and ascended to the top C with spot-on intonation. Suarez Groen’s reaction to learning Fidelio’s true identity in the opera’s finale provided a precious moment of levity. The soprano’s lovely tones occasionally could not be heard when she descended into the lower octave of her range, but she sang sweetly and illuminated the stage with her radiant smile.

The unshakable cornerstone of Opera Carolina's Fidelio was bass Andrew Funk, whose paternal, dignified incarnation of Rocco was worthy of comparison with legendary performances of the rôle by singers such as Alexander Kipnis, Ludwig Weber, Gottlob Frick, Franz Crass, and Kurt Moll. From his first note, there was no doubting that Funk is a true bass, and his vocalism went from strength to strength as the performance progressed. In the Act One quartet with Leonore, Marzelline, and Jaquino, Funk sang 'Sie liebt ihn, es ist klar, ja, Mädchen, er wird dein' cheerfully, and his performance of the aria 'Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben, kann man nicht ganz glücklich sein,' often a low point in performances of Fidelio, was musically and dramatically invigorating, not least in the allegro section that begins with 'Doch wenn's in den Taschen fein klingelt und rollt.' The cleverness with which Funk as Rocco the eager father sought to bring Marzelline and Fidelio together in their trio was endearing, and he voiced 'Gut, Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut' winsomely. Funk wholly avoided the bumbling silliness that many Roccos inflict upon audiences in the duet with Pizarro, uttering 'So sagt doch nur in Eile, womit ich dienen kann' with surety of pitch and purpose. Persuaded by Fidelio to permit the prisoners a turn in the yard in the Act One finale, Funk's Rocco was the personification of noble-hearted decency. In the series of ensembles in Act Two, the bass continually deepened the humanity of his characterization. In the duet with Leonore, his reluctance to obey Pizarro's orders developed into genuine kindness towards Florestan, his hesitant, almost embarrassed singing of 'Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben' ardently expressing his moral reservations. The solemnity of his shaping of 'Ich labt ihn gern, den armen Mann' in the subsequent trio was telling, and his bewilderment in the quartet as Rocco discovered that his intended son-in-law was actually Florestan's wife in disguise was unexpectedly touching. Too many singers portray Rocco as befuddled rather than benevolent, but Funk made him an intelligent, caring, laudably serious man. Not one note of Rocco's music was outside of Funk's comfort zone, and not one word of the part was spoken or sung haphazardly.

It may seem ridiculous to suggest that the most enjoyable aspect of baritone Kyle Pfortmiller’s portrayal of Don Pizarro was not how he sang the rôle but that he sang it. Singing the music is apparently far less attractive to many Pizarros than shouting it, but Pfortmiller was the exception to this rule, and the performance was all the better for it. In his entrance in Act One, he swept across the stage like a wintry wind, and he sang the aria 'Ha! Ha! Ha! welch ein Augenblick!' with considerably greater depth than the standard cardboard villainy, encountering no difficulties with the profusion of top Ds and E♭s. In the subsequent duet with Rocco, Pfortmiller left no doubt of Pizarro’s murderous intentions in his cold-blooded articulation of 'Jetzt, Alter, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile!’ In the Act Two quartet, he roared 'Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen, wer ihm sein stolzes Herz zerfleischt' frighteningly without abandoning Beethoven’s pitches or his own consummate musicality. The pleasure of hearing Pizarro’s music truly sung, not snarled, cannot be overstated, and the performance was greatly enhanced by having as fine a voice as Pfortmiller’s in the part.

Considering his importance to the plot of Fidelio, Florestan, who does not appear in Act One, has surprisingly little to sing. When he opens Act Two with his recitative 'Gott! welch Dunkel hier!' and adagio cantabile aria 'In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir geflohn,' however, his significance both to Fidelio and to the tradition of German music for the tenor voice is immediately established. In Opera Carolina’s performance, it was also immediately apparent that tenor Andrew Richards was a Florestan for whom the rôle’s punishing tessitura was challenging but not damning. After a tiny crack on a descending phrase in the recitative, he coped manfully with the frequent top As and B♭s in the aria and drew the audience into his vision of his ‘Engel, Leonoren.’ Richards’s voice rang out beautifully on 'Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten' in the trio with Leonore and Rocco, and the fortitude that his Florestan displayed despite his weakness in the face of Pizarro’s treachery was rousingly manifested in the quartet, his voicing of 'Ein Mörder, ein Mörder steht vor mir' possessing singularity of purpose that compensated for his physical frailty. In the frenzied duet with Leonore, 'O namenlose Freude,’ a duet that clearly exerted a potent influence on Wagner when he was composing the cataclysmic love duet for Tristan and Isolde, Richards traded gleaming top Gs and As with his Leonore, and his lines in the opera’s finale were imposing expressions of profound joy and relief. Richards’s singing was not without effort, but the effort was repaid by an uncommonly effective, affecting portrait of Florestan.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor ANDREW RICHARDS as Florestan (left) and soprano MARIA KATZARAVA as Leonore (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]Die Macht der Hoffnung: Tenor Andrew Richards as Florestan (left) and soprano Maria Katzarava as Leonore (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]

​There were suggestions of the young Éva Marton in the Leonore of Mexican soprano Maria Katzarava. The 1984 Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinée broadcast performance of Fidelio in which the Hungarian soprano was partnered by Jon Vickers, whose singing as Florestan Richards’s performance fleetingly resembled, is as fine a performance as Marton ever sang of any rôle, and Katzarava very nearly surpassed the unexpected brilliance of her predecessor. In a sense, Katzarava's excellence was also surprising. She made a petite prison guard, but big, bold tone poured out of her like a geyser forcing its way through a small crevice in the earth. In the Act One quartet, the soprano exclaimed 'Wie groß ist die Gefahr! wie schwach der Hoffnung Schein!' with fervor, and her statement of 'Ich habe Mut, mit kaltem Blut, mit kaltem Blut will ich hinab mich wagen' in the trio was heartening. There were a few suspect pitches along the way, and notes below the stave were slightly compromised by Katzarava's otherwise admirable avoidance of chest register, but the voice was both attractive and impactful from E4 to B5, where most of Leonore's music is centered. She dove into the famous recitative 'Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin? was hast du vor?' with controlled zeal, and she molded the adagio section of the aria, 'Komm, Hoffnung, laß den letzten Stern,' with bel canto delicacy that made the rise to top B an organic climax. Bolstered by the horns, she mastered 'Ich folg' dem innern Triebe,' little troubled by the two-octave compass extending from low B♯ to top B. The top A♭s and B♭s in the Act One finale held no terrors for her, and her voice was discernible in even the largest ensembles without being over-prominent, which is to say that she consistently achieved balances between power and poise that suited the music. In Leonore's duet with Rocco in Act Two, Katzarava emoted 'Ihr sollt ja nicht zu klagen haben, ihn sollt gewiß zufrieden sein' with passion, fearlessly executing the difficult triplets, and her glowing reading of 'Wie heftig pochet dieses Herz es wogt, es wogt in Freud und scharfem Schmerz' in the trio was bewitching. Compelled in the quartet to take action in order to save her husband's life, this Leonore's 'Zurück! Durchbohren, durchbohren mußt du erst diese Brust' pierced the torso of the drama as sharply as the dagger with which Pizarro meant to murder Florestan. The top B♭ that crowned her statement of 'Töt erst sein Weib!' was like dynamite: in a moment, the perilous threats to life and happiness were blown apart. The still-cautious euphoria of Leonore's and Florestan's reunion exploded in 'O namenlose Freude,' the soprano's climactic top Bs filling the auditorium with the sound of victory. Katzarava's voice soared in the opera's finale, the concentration of her singing of 'O Gott! o Gott! welch ein Augenblick!' meaningfully elucidating Leonore's response to a course of events she was hardly able to believe. The rise to top B♭, on which she was joined by Marzelline, was a musical catharsis, a sort of vocal representation of warming sunlight at last penetrating dense clouds. A marvel of Katzarava's performance was that she was able to summon such impressive vocal amplitude without heaviness: she maintained flexibility even when singing with the weight of a Reiza or Senta. The company of wholly successful Leonores has ever been small, but Katzarava distinguished Opera Carolina’s Fidelio by adding her name to that roll of distinction.

To those who love opera, the world's opera houses are the temples in which the rites of this incredible genre are practiced. Great composers are the prophets, and great singers are the priests who proselytize in efforts to recruit new audiences without shunning existing audiences, especially those individuals with deep pockets. On the rare occasions when whichever cosmic conditions affect the performance of opera are in proper alignment, opera can be a near-religious experience, and few scores in the international repertory are vessels more suited to celebration of the sacrament of opera than Beethoven’s Fidelio. It is a difficult score, and in too many performances its merits, the qualities that set it apart, must be taken on faith. Staged with tenderness, conducted with perceptiveness, and performed with honesty and beauty, Opera Carolina’s Fidelio was to those who love this opera an inspiring answer to prayers.