28 November 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven — FIDELIO (A. LoBianco, C. Tanner, K. Kellogg, J. Barron, E. Baikoff, J. Karn, T. Onishi; North Carolina Opera, 12 November 2021)

IN REVIEW: Nineteenth-Century depiction of the penultimate scene of Act Two of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO [Image © by Bridgeman Images Collection]LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Fidelio, Opus 72Alexandra LoBianco (Leonore), Carl Tanner (Florestan), Kenneth Kellogg (Rocco), Joseph Barron (Don Pizarro), Erika Baikoff (Marzelline), Jason Karn (Jaquino), Takaoki Onishi (Don Fernando), Wade Henderson (Erster Gefangener), Adam Dengler (Zweiter Gefangener); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Arthur Fagen, conductor [North Carolina Opera, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 12 November 2021 (dress rehearsal)]

No matter how nobly they strive to esteem all of their progeny equally, artists, like parents, invariably feel greater affection for some of their creations than for others. The most logical impetus for such preferences is success, but, particularly in opera, works that troubled their creators most are often those that composers love best. Nearly two centuries after his death, it is folly to conjecture that his sole opera, Fidelio, was valued more highly than its brethren by their progenitor, but the effort expended in bringing the opera to the stage, initially as Leonore and, after painstaking revisions, as Fidelio, might well have garnered a place of honor in Beethoven’s heart for this wonderful, worrisome score.

First performed in the version most familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater on 23 May 1814, Fidelio occupied Beethoven for more than a decade, its genesis initiated by an 1803 commission from the noted singer, thespian, and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who commissioned, wrote the libretto, and created the rôle of Papageno in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Beethoven’s setting of a forgotten libretto by Schikaneder was set aside when Joseph Sonnleithner’s libretto for Leonore, an adaptation of a play that was popular with Parisian audiences in the final months of France’s four-year Directoire, came to Beethoven’s attention. The indifference that greeted Leonore’s 1805 première, resulting from influences more martial than musical, prompted substantial retooling, yielding a shortened edition of the piece that, when staged in 1806, was appreciated but ultimately sidelined by circumstances that again had little to do with music.

The final incarnation of Fidelio, its libretto having been modified by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, was quickly recognized as a work of unique power, surpassing other contemporaneous settings of the same source material and similar pieces in the ‘rescue’ opera genre that was fashionable during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. It is easy to theorize that Beethoven’s own longing for conjugal devotion deepened his connection with the story of a wife’s determination to free her wrongly-imprisoned husband at any cost to herself, but the poignancy of North Carolina Opera’s performance of Fidelio, planned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth but postponed due to COVID-19, was anything but theoretical. A scheduling conflict, the stuff of opera lovers’ nightmares, necessitated attending the final dress rehearsal rather than the concert performance. Rehearsals must always be safe, sacrosanct environments in which artists can take risks and sort out mistakes without fear of critical censure. In this instance, however, the integrity and professionalism of the cast assembled for North Carolina Opera’s Fidelio produced a dress rehearsal that was a stellar performance in its own right; one in assessment of which no allowances for the performing conditions need to be made.

Under the baton of renowned conductor Arthur Fagen, whose respect for Beethoven’s score was apparent in every bar of his reading of it, the musicians of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra played with precision of pitch, rhythm, and ensemble that would have been remarkable in any performance. In a rehearsal, musicianship of such an exalted caliber attested to North Carolina Opera’s tremendous achievements during the past decade. From the opening bars of the Overture, the musicians’ preparedness and enthusiasm both for this music and for returning to live performance in general were evident. Fagen exhibited innate understanding of Beethoven’s musical language, emphasizing accents learned from Haydn, Salieri, and Mozart while also spotlighting the score’s originality.

Conductor and orchestra made the March that introduces Don Pizarro jauntily bombastic and strangely sinister, and the horns conquered the oft-mangled writing for their instruments in Leonore’s celebrated aria. Tempi and dynamics were faithful to Beethoven’s instructions, maintaining the elusive equilibrium between momentum and refinement. Fagen elucidated the presages of Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss in the prelude to Florestan’s scene at the start of Act Two without approaching the music like a rediscovered episode from Der Ring des Nibelungen. The inevitable flaws of live performance were few and fleeting. If ever there were a perfect performance of any piece, that perfection would be a damning imperfection, for a crucial component of music’s capacity to excite is its flirtation with catastrophe. Beethoven’s music embodies a singular fusion of Classicism and chaos, and Fagen’s conducting was the catalyst for an incendiary musical reaction.

As in many of North Carolina Opera’s performances in recent seasons, chorus master Scott MacLeod’s work yielded choral singing of an exceptionally high standard. Beethoven’s writing for the chorus in Fidelio is not extensive but is both very demanding and vitally important to the drama. First as the troops who accompany Don Pizarro to the prison and, later in Act One, as the prisoners who extol a rare opportunity to enjoy a few moments of freedom from their cells with one of opera’s great choruses, ‘O welche Lust,’ the gentlemen of the North Carolina Opera Chorus demonstrated well-trained versatility, roaring with martial bravado in Don Pizarro’s scene and movingly imparting the reverent awe of inmates grateful for even a few minutes in which to uninhibitedly feel the sun upon their faces. Joined by the ladies in the opera’s final scene, the choristers celebrated the triumphs of conjugal love and decency over pride and oppression with singing that tested the structural integrity of the concert hall’s roof. The roof thankfully proved to be capable of withstanding the tide of sound, but few listeners’ emotions are likely to have remained unstirred by the chorus’s performance.

Two of the Triangle’s most gifted singers lent their voices to the lines for the pair of prisoners who emerge from the chorus in Act One. Tenor Wade Henderson voiced ‘Wir wollen mit Vertrauen auf Gottes Hilfe bauen’ with the clarity of intonation and diction and clarion tone from which many North Carolina Opera performances have benefited. Baritone Adam Dengler sang ‘Sprecht leise, haltet euch zurück!’ strongly but subtly, compellingly conveying the aura of apprehension that prolonged captivity had instilled in the prisoners.

His portrayal of Silvio in North Carolina Opera’s 2020 production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci introduced Triangle audiences to the fantastic voice of baritone Takaoki Onishi, and his return to Raleigh to portray Fidelio’s deus ex machina, the benevolent government minister Don Fernando, was most welcome, especially as it is uncommon to hear a voice of such excellent mettle in the rôle. Onishi performed the official’s conciliatory duties affectingly, singing ‘Des besten Königs Wink und Wille’ and Don Fernando’s words of admiration for Leonore’s resilience with the vocal solidity and attractiveness that the music deserves but too seldom receives.

Another member of NC Opera’s Pagliacci cast, tenor Jason Karn is also a familiar presence in Raleigh. He excelled as Leoncavallo’s Beppe, but Beethoven’s music for Jaquino afforded greater opportunities for him to demonstrate the quality of his voice. Opening Act One with a spirited exchange with Marzelline, this Jaquino sang ‘Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein’ with the irrepressible impatience of a young man in love. Karn’s lyricism in the sublime quartet was complemented by excitingly frenetic singing in the quintet in the act’s final scene. In Act Two, Jaquino appears only in the opera’s final moments, rejoicing in Florestan’s release and celebrating the discovery of Fidelio’s true identity rejuvenating his hope for winning Marzelline’s affection. Cognizant of the difference between projection and volume, Karn was audible in even the densest ensemble, his lustrous timbre discernible but never over-prominent.

Soprano Erika Baikoff’s Marzelline was a winsome young lady, sharp-witted but dreamily romantic enough to fall victim to Leonore’s disguise. In her duet with Jaquino in the first scene of Act One, this Marzelline’s disgust at the notion of settling for her familiar suitor rather than pursuing the enigmatic Fidelio was palpable, the soprano’s singing of ‘Es wird ja nichts Wichtiges sein’ laden with good-natured but intensifying annoyance. Its music poised between Mozart and Weber, Marzelline’s aria ‘O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint,’ though appealingly scored, can be tedious when it is sung unimaginatively. Baikoff’s performance was delightful, her top A delivered with the ebullience of a young girl’s first declaration of love. She voiced ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ in the quartet with an apt sense of amazement, a sentiment also relayed by her gleaming top C in the trio and her zestful singing of the triplets in the quintet. The consternation with which this Marzelline learned of Leonore’s true identity in the opera’s final scene was both amusing and touching. Too good-natured to be angry, she accepted the revelation of her folly with humility, relayed with beguiling vocalism.

In too many performances of Fidelio, the musical atrocities committed by interpreters of Don Pizarro, the tyrannical prison governor, are nearly as unpardonable as the character’s torture and detention of Florestan. The sagacity of North Carolina Opera’s casting of this Fidelio filled Meymandi Concert Hall with every note sung by bass-baritone Joseph Barron, a Don Pizarro with few peers in the years since Friedrich Schorr, Josef Metternich, and Hans Hotter last sang the rôle. Rather than the travesty of off-pitch caterwauling that it is in some productions, Pizarro’s tempestuous entrance aria ‘Ha! welch’ ein Augenblick!’ was genuinely sung in Barron’s performance, the full range of the music in the voice and the words hurled into the auditorium like grenades. Though appropriately savage, ‘Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile!’ in the duet with Rocco was also uninfringably musical, and his voicing of ‘Verweg’ner Alter, welche Rechte’ in the quintet was vicious without being discordant. In the quartet in Act Two, Barron detonated a volatile ‘Er sterbe!’ that, like all of the bass-baritone’s singing on this evening, made its point without resorting to shouting and snarling.

When sung with the proper blend of humor and humanity, the gaoler Rocco can be Fidelio’s most endearing character, a relation of Mozart’s Sarastro and Wagner’s Hans Sachs. North Carolina Opera’s Rocco, bass Kenneth Kellogg, interpreted the part with paternal kindliness and hearty joviality, maintaining an element of lightness in his delivery even at the bottom of the range. He anchored the Act One quartet firmly, his tone consistently solid, and his handsomely-sung account of the aria ‘Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben’ exuded the doting father’s delight in his own cunning. His ‘Gut, Söhnchen, gut,’ delivered to Fidelio with a potential father-in-law’s pride, was as charming as it was sonorous.

In the duet with Don Pizarro, more somber facets of Rocco’s personality shone in Kellogg’s voicing of ‘So sagt doch nur in Eile,’ horror darkening his tone as the amiable guard recoiled at his superior’s murderous instructions. The bass’s singing in the final scene of Act One, first in the duet with Leonore and subsequently in the quintet, disclosed growing anxiety, the gravity of the voice’s lower reaches suggesting that Rocco was tormented by the seeming inevitability of tragedy. Funereal severity remained in the duet with Leonore in Act Two, but Kellogg’s singing of ‘Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben’ demonstrated the character’s innate compassion. The shock of learning that the trusted Fidelio was actually Leonore was quickly supplanted by recognition of the magnitude of the events transpiring before him, the voice suffused with astonishment in the trio and quartet. Though Kellogg’s vocalism exhibited sophistication throughout the performance, his Rocco was an ordinary man who found himself in an extraordinary situation.

Beethoven’s vocal writing for the husband who inspires Leonore’s unbending fidelity is so demanding that, though he appears only in Act Two, Florestan is one of opera’s most daunting—and, frankly, frequently poorly-sung—rôles. The tenors who sang Florestan in the respective premières of the opera’s three versions were acclaimed for their performances of music by Haydn and Mozart, a fact that may seem remarkable to listeners whose exposure to Fidelio was shaped by Heldentenor Florestans like Wolfgang Windgassen and Jon Vickers. Raleigh’s Florestan, Carl Tanner, the superb Canio in NC Opera‘s 2020 Pagliacci, might be best categorized as a spinto tenor, a singer like fellow American James King whose voice possesses heft and flexibility, traits upon which he capitalized in his portrayal of Florestan.

There was no lack of raw power in Tanner’s singing of ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier,’ but he also preserved clarity of line that often eludes heavier voices. His reading of the Adagio cantabile ‘In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir gefloh’n’ was hypnotic, the legato smooth and the top B♭s solid. The dramatic whirlwind of the trio with Leonore and Rocco spurred Tanner to voice ‘Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten’ expansively, resignation giving way to hope, and his lines in the quartet were enunciated with inherent nobility. The ecstatic frenzy of ‘O namenlose Freude!’ overtaxes some Florestans’ vocal resources, but Tanner sang incandescently. Here and in the opera’s final scene, sure of his command of the music, he infused his vocalism with elation. Heroic but never hectoring, Tanner was a Florestan who merited Leonore’s selfless daring, singing the part with a level of assurance rarely heard in this music.

It is a testament to Beethoven’s approval of Anna Milder-Hauptmann’s interpretation of Leonore that she was entrusted with singing the rôle in the first performances of each of the opera’s three versions. A noted champion of Gluck’s operas, Milder-Hauptmann’s repertoire also encompassed music by Haydn, Cherubini, Spontini, and Mendelssohn. It is difficult to speculate about the amplitude of her sound based solely upon the music that she sang and contemporary descriptions of her singing, but it is likely that Milder-Hauptmann brought a leaner, nimbler voice to Leonore than has become common in the rôle in the years since Wagnerians including Amalie Materna, Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, and Dame Gwyneth Jones assumed the part. Heard in Raleigh in recent seasons as Tosca and the Siegfried Brünnhilde, North Carolina Opera’s Leonore, soprano Alexandra LoBianco, sang Beethoven’s music with a voice that was at once both dexterous and opulent in a manner reminiscent of Gertrude Grob-Prandl.

Leonore’s lines in the canon quartet in which she is first heard in Act One are placed low in the voice, reminding the listener that Leonore is in male disguise, and LoBianco sang athletically without over-reliance on chest resonance. In the trio with Rocco and Marzelline, she enunciated ‘Ich habe Mut!’ with dramatic involvement and a majestic top A♭. Overhearing Pizarro’s plot to murder Florestan, this Leonore declaimed ‘Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?’ bitingly, the wife’s abhorrence of Pizarro’s treachery transfiguring the singer’s voice into a column of fire. LoBianco then channeled Leonore’s love for Florestan into a reading of ‘Komm, Hoffnung, laß den letzten Stern’ that united an accomplished bel canto singer’s cantilena with a valkyrie’s valiant top Bs. A new air of tenacity permeated her voicing of ‘Nun sprecht, wie ging’s?’ in the duet with Rocco, and she closed Act One with striking ascents to top A and B♭.

Though singing the rôle in a dress rehearsal for a concert performance of the opera, LoBianco’s work in Act Two evinced total comprehension of the dramatic trajectory of Leonore’s actions. The onerous triplets in the duet with Rocco were dispatched with ease, and the soprano sang ‘Ihr sollt ja nicht zu klagen haben’ with unaffected emotional directness. Her vocalism in the trio with Florestan and Rocco promulgated the catharsis of Leonore’s reunion with her husband. In LoBianco’s performance, Leonore’s ‘Tödt’ erst sein Weib!’ in the quartet was the climax that it should be, her euphoric top B♭ declaring her triumph over Pizarro’s depravity. ‘O namenlose Freude!’ has rarely sounded more like a precursor of the celebrated love duet in Act Two of Tristan und Isolde than when sung by LoBianco and Tanner, her top B still refulgent after an evening of arduous singing. Alongside her colleagues’ affecting performances, the beauty and expressivity of LoBianco’s vocalism heightened the immense emotional impact of the opera’s final scene, crowning a portrayal of grace and grit.

On 5 November 1955, the storied Wiener Staatsoper again resounded with music after a decade of silence. Its stage destroyed by a fiery bombardment as the Second World War waned, the company celebrated the reconstruction of the house on the Ringstraße with a production of Fidelio. It was fitting that North Carolina Opera perpetuated this tradition by commemorating perseverance in the battle against COVID-19 by performing Fidelio, yet the joys of this Fidelio were not solely ceremonial. Uplifted by a team of artists giving of their best, North Carolina Opera’s Fidelio signaled that those who cherish it will liberate opera from any calamity.