Thursday, October 28, 2010

Opera Boston's "Fidelio"

I never miss a chance to hear Beethoven’s “Fidelio”.

“Fidelio”, for me, is always a welcome experience. I never need to prepare myself, mentally or emotionally, to hear “Fidelio”—and the same cannot be said of most Italian operas or the stage works of Wagner and Strauss. No matter my mood and no matter my frame of mind, “Fidelio” always captures my attention, instantly and fully. “Fidelio” is one of two only operas I could enjoy if forcibly wakened at 3:30 a.m. and required to listen to an opera from beginning to end (the other is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”).

I have never heard a satisfactory live account of the score and I have never witnessed a compelling stage production of the work, yet an announcement of “Fidelio” will always get me into the theater or concert hall.

On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I attended Opera Boston's "Fidelio”, and we were pleased we made the effort. Josh knew “Fidelio” from the excellent Otto Klemperer recording, but Sunday afternoon was his first opportunity to experience the work in person.

We did not expect much. Exactly two years ago, we had attended a gruesome Opera Boston performance of Weber’s “Der Freischutz”, and the presentation—musical and dramatic—had been so inept that we believed that the company had intentionally set out to destroy the great work. Exactly one year ago, we had suffered through a grim Opera Boston performance of Rossini’s “Tancredi”, worth sitting through only because of the presence of Ewa Podles.

Sunday’s “Fidelio”, in no way distinguished, was nonetheless nowhere near as bad as our two previous experiences with Opera Boston.

For starters, the physical production was not atrocious. The physical production certainly was not good, but it was—mostly—a serious attempt to create a stage-worthy framework for the enactment of Beethoven’s musical drama. The stage design and stage direction were at the level of a college production, no more, yet Sunday’s “Fidelio” was light years better than the insufferable “Freischutz” and “Tancredi” we had endured from Opera Boston in the past.

“Fidelio” is a genre opera of a short-lived type: the French “rescue” drama of the late-18th Century/early-19th Century, a genre whose origins lie in The French Revolution. In the French “rescue” drama, the theme is release from tyranny. Such works became fashionable all over Europe from approximately 1790 until 1815, after which the genre died coincident with the fall of Napoleon and the onset of The Congress Of Vienna. “Fidelio” is the sole example of the French “rescue” drama that has remained in the opera repertory.

“Fidelio” is not a pure example of French “rescue” drama: the early scenes derive from German singspiel, charming and rustic, and the closing scene is grand philosophical statement, a trial run for the concluding movement of the composer’s Ninth Symphony. In theory, such a mixture should not work—yet “Fidelio” has held the stage for 200 years. It remains one of the most powerful and noble of all works for the lyric stage.

The work’s power and nobility came across on Sunday, even though the director of Opera Boston’s “Fidelio” made a few boneheaded and juvenile misjudgments that undercut the drama of the great work as well as established that he did not genuinely believe in or trust the material.

First, the dialogue was presented in English translation while the musical numbers were sung to the original German text, an inherently-ridiculous practice that should never be attempted unless the intended audience is a group of high school students.

Second, characters were always given something to do during their arias, an absurd peculiarity of current American opera production that always proves distracting both for singer and audience. In Beethoven’s arias, the drama is in the music; the assignment of “stage business” cheapens the music and cheapens the drama.

Third, the director set Beethoven’s drama of political tyranny during the time of The Spanish Inquisition, an event known for religious, not political, persecution. The director further muddied the waters by introducing an explicit and absurd anti-Cleric subtext nowhere supported in the libretto or score. Anyone encountering “Fidelio” for the first time would have been justified in believing that the central theme of the work was the depraved behavior of The Roman Catholic Church, alarmingly base and in need of regeneration, and not freedom from the rule of despots.

Fourth, the director introduced gratuitous elements into the staging, some merely silly and some positively offensive. Some characters, Cleric and non-Cleric alike, were required to engage in onstage sexual behavior. Other characters, Cleric without exception, were shown as keen on torture, perversion and debauchery. The director, apparently a lapsed Roman Catholic, showed himself as bearing a massive grudge against the Church. I am not Roman Catholic and, consequently, I was able to laugh off much of the staging; a devout Roman Catholic probably would not have enjoyed the same luxury.

The cast members looked uncomfortable all afternoon, required, as they were, to run around onstage in undergarments (or less); to pretend that they were torturing shackled victims with hot pokers applied to sensitive body parts; and to engage in Monty Pythonesque impersonations of Church officials. Under the circumstances, it was no wonder that there was not a genuine performance to be seen onstage.

Vocally, this was an unimpressive “Fidelio”, offering singers of “local” caliber giving performances of “local” standard. As a purely provincial presentation, surely the standard by which Opera Boston must be judged, this “Fidelio” employed a satisfactory Rocco and Pizarro, a weak Marzelline, Jacquino and Florestan.

The Leonore was Christine Goerke, a singer some persons might categorize as “mid-major”.

I was unimpressed with Goerke, although she certainly displayed the finest voice of the afternoon. Goerke lacked necessary power and thrust (and polish) in the Abscheulicher, which did not come off at all—it came off as a number that had to be got through, not one of the supreme highlights of the score. Elsewhere, Goerke was capable but uninteresting, demonstrating a voice of some size but a voice that lacks color, luster, gleam and a distinctive timbre.

Goerke’s contribution to the finale was perhaps her finest moment, where her voice rode the ensemble well, but I do not think that Leonore is Goerke’s role. Goerke is not a natural Hochdramatische—and only a Hochdramatische can soar in the Abscheulicher—and Goerke is not a creature of the stage. Goerke is probably shown to better advantage in concert work in less heavy repertory.

The orchestra, chorus and conductor did not provide adequate support. All had made a giant mess of “Der Freischutz” two years ago, and all had been utterly lost in the subtleties of “Tancredi” one year ago, not having a clue how to bring Rossini opera seria to life.

Somehow, I had expected these same forces to be much more polished and much more confident in “Fidelio”—after all, the score of “Fidelio” is much easier to perform than the score of “Der Freischutz”, and much more familiar to American musicians than the score of “Tancredi”—but, if anything, they were worse. The level of orchestral performance was that of a pickup ensemble granted two rehearsals. The level of choral performance was that of a pickup group granted four rehearsals. Such a rehearsal schedule is not sufficient for what was represented and sold to the public as a professional performance of “Fidelio”

The company urgently needs to engage a competent Music Director. Musically, Sunday’s “Fidelio” was limp and drab. Conductor Gil Rose provided an uninspiring, even lifeless, account of the score, offering a reading devoid of energy, concentration, character and drama. Rose was unable even to maintain basic coordination between pit and stage, let alone explore and reveal the power and beauty of Beethoven’s score.

Rose is a very unimpressive musician. I have now heard him hack his way through three masterful scores. It’s time for him to be replaced.

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