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Seattle Opera "Fidelio"


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#1 Helene

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Posted 14 October 2012 - 11:15 PM

"Fidelio" opened Saturday night, with the Opening Night cast, Christine Libor and Clifton Forbis as Fidelio/Leonore and Florestan. Forbis was originally scheduled to sing with Marcy Stonikas, who did a fantastic Turandot in August, in today's matinee performance, which I saw, but earlier in the week Seattle Opera sent an email to say that because Florestan is such a difficult role, and because Forbis' cover, Ric Furman was ready, Furman would sing the single matinee performance. (Jenkins also made a very short pre-curtain announcement.) I really like Forbis -- I've heard his Tristan in two different productions -- and was sorry to miss him, but this proved to be an excellent decision on Jenkins' part.

Leading up to the production I read a lot of singer interviews on the Seattle Opera Blog, and the singers were diplomatic about the score, talking about how part X really sings, but they had to be careful about part Y, because it was written as if for an instrument, but while Jenkins said in a Q&A that one of the early versions was un-singable, I'm not convinced that this one wasn't written for trumpets with the agility of reed players. Too many singers, including John Tessier (Jaquino), Greer Grimsley (Don Pizarro), Kevin Short (Don Fernando), and even Anya Matanovic, a much bigger-voiced Marzelline that I've often heard, and Marcy Stonikas in her lower register in Act I, seemed to be vying to find the pocket, with the music a moving target. In the program, conductor Asher Fisch is quoted, "A Mozart singer can't sing "Fidelio." I know that's not all Tessier sings, but I've heard his Mozart singing, and it is beautiful, but this role (Jaquino) was impossible. What saved the day was how great the acting and characterizations were.

For one thing, is the first Fidelio I've seen where Marzelline, Rocco, and Jaquino are people, not just comic relief, and when Marzelline accepts Jaquino at the end, she didn't get such a shabby deal. (It didn't hurt that we won the cute tenor sweepstakes in this production.) The real triumph was Arthur Woodley's Rocco. Usually portrayed as the unshaven hick with a prison key-ring, Woodley's Rocco was a professional, a military man, warn down by life in this prison. He also sang as if the music were written for his voice.

Florestan doesn't have as much character development as Rocco, but within the confines of the role, Ric Furman made the most of it, from his first exclamation, "Gott!!!," which comes right from the Act II prelude, to the final chorus. When he started to sing with a big, open top and seamless range, the first thing I thought was "Prize Song." He has that beautiful a voice. Stonikas in Act II was magnificent, and a beautiful match with Furman in "O namenlose Freude."

The production is set in the present, and the prison is a combination of high-tech -- computers, electronic gates -- low-tech -- barbed wire atop chain-link fences, and the dress is contemporary, if the file cabinets in Don Pizarro's office look a few decades out of date. (Who bothers to update the decor of a prison office that's visited sporadically?) The point is that the story is timeless, sadly, and that there are political prisoners in every time and in every regime.

The two most powerful scenes were the scenes with the great Seattle Opera chorus at the end of each act. Kudos to them and First and Second Prisoners Theo Lebow and Matthew Scollin: at the end of the first act, they created the contrast between joy and relief at seeing sunlight and the anguish of being shut inside.

The very end of the opera was brilliantly conceived. Don Fernando's appearance at the prison is supposed to be a secret inspection, which is leaked to Don Pizzaro, presumably by a spy of his in Don Fernando's department. Here, it's partly a photo op -- he thinks his friend, Florestan, is already dead -- and so much of the press is there to record it, and all of the prisoners' families are there to find their loved ones, that it's the worst-guarded secret in the country. As the family members rush the prisoners, holding sheets with photos and information about their prisoner, you can see both the blazing, mutual disappointment when there was not a match, and the ecstasy when there was. Some of the reunions were quick. A few people were crushed to not find their relatives, but then gradually found them.

In the meantime, Florestan had already thanked a merciful G-d who put all to right before he even embraced his wife, and everyone started to sing about G-d had made everything better, and the music started to sound like then end of Beethoven's Ninth, and I was starting to fume. What about the bodies and minds destroyed by torture? What about the families who'd been torn apart? What about the lost time? What about the prisoners who died? What about the prisoners whose best friend wasn't Don Fernando, who weren't prominent, who weren't educated/connected/wealthy? Where were the families who didn't find their relatives alive? What was so perfectly merciful about all of this?

But then, a few things happened, aside from the cynical? practical? take on Don Fernando. First, Greer Grimley's Don Pizarro pushed away a swat team, his attitude a "Don't touch the suit" as he walked off surrounded by half-a-dozen guys in kevlar suits and automatic weapons, and horrible as it is, maybe his fancy lawyer will get him off, or there will be a political compromise once another photo op takes over the headlines, and/or maybe he'll end up like G. Gordon Liddy, resurrected as an actor, writer, and talking head. Second, at the very end, after most of the people walk off, happy to be free and heading home, there are two children standing with a woman holding a flyer with photo of a prisoner, and there was no prisoner to be found. Director Chris Alexander had really thought this one through.

The orchestra, conducted by Asher Fisch, was superb, a real treat.

#2 sandik

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Posted 14 October 2012 - 11:23 PM

"Second, at the very end, and most of the people walk off, happy to be free and heading home, there are two children standing with a woman holding a flyer with photo of a prisoner, and there was no prisoner to be found."

This sounds like the last time they performed this work -- my sister described it to me, and I was weeping just from that. Even now, it makes me tear up.

#3 Helene

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Posted 15 October 2012 - 09:22 AM

Adding that one of the reasons Marzellina was such a great character in this production was not only because Anya Matanovic's voice was big and not the stereotypical sweet voice, but because she sang so directly and with such passion. She wasn't a Marzelline that was easy to dismiss with a few embarrassed head pats, as if she were aiming so far above her station and as if everyone in a high-security prison had figured out that Fidelio was a woman, and she was the only one who hadn't figured it out. She was more like Effie in "La Sylphide."

#4 bart

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Posted 15 October 2012 - 03:50 PM

Helene, thank you for your post -- especially the detailed description of the staging of the opera's conclusion.

But then, a few things happened, aside from the cynical? practical? take on Don Fernando. First, Greer Grimley's Don Pizarro pushed away a swat team, his attitude a "Don't touch the suit" as he walked off surrounded by half-a-dozen guys in kevlar suits and automatic weapons, and horrible as it is, maybe his fancy lawyer will get him off, or there will be a political compromise once another photo op takes over the headlines, and/or maybe he'll end up like G. Gordon Liddy, resurrected as an actor, writer, and talking head. Second, at the very end, after most of the people walk off, happy to be free and heading home, there are two children standing with a woman holding a flyer with photo of a prisoner, and there was no prisoner to be found. Director Chris Alexander had really thought this one through.


The last time I saw this was 3 or 4 years ago, a production set in what appeared to be a mid-20th century military or fascist dictatorship. The ending was conventionally upbeat and "happy." Dramatically this worked.. However, your description of the way Seattle handles the concluding moments made me rethink how the opera actually ends. I remember that the final scene. The last words you hear praise Leonore and celebrate her reunion with Floreston. The last words you hear direct our attention attention on the success of the lovers. I really like the idea of idea of undercutting this with a visual reminder that one family's happiness can coexist with another family's misery.

One question: How did you ending fit with the music? My memory is that the final chorus is celebratory and upbeat in a rather grand way. Often in contemporary opera stagings, what we see on stage has a way of undercutting the intention of the composer and the feel of the music. Some directors wish to impose irony -- or ambiguity --- when the music we are hearing is telling us something quite different. I would love to hear your thoughts on this (I confess that I love the idea and hope that it did fit perfectly with the music -- choral and orchestral.)

#5 Helene

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Posted 15 October 2012 - 04:12 PM

I think there are two ways of looking at it: I think the majority of the crowd was happy and grateful to a hero, because their lives, and their families' lives were salvaged. It was a big, grand, emotional moment, and crowd dynamics have a life of their own, not to mention how ungrateful and unpopular a person would be for raining on someone else's parade. Having the reality shown doesn't make the majority of the crowd's reaction any less heartfelt. In that case having the other side shown was a more nuanced way of looking at the drama.

Take, for instance, the character of Fricka in The Ring. Wagner tried his hardest to make her into a shrewish, unsympathetic, obstructionist character that we'd want to boo off of the stage, and he even gave her stodgy music in "Das Rheingold" to show how conventional she was, but when push came to shove, he gave her impassioned music in the great confrontation with Wotan in "Die Walkure," and Wotan sounds like a spoiled child, and not terribly bright, regardless of the merits of his side of the argument. A stage director could ignore this -- and I've seen it happen, most recently in the San Francisco Ring -- and turn her into a wretch, or a stage director could step outside and comment, or, actually, in this case, let the music do the talking. Yes, at the end of Fidelio, a great deal of good has been done, directly, and indirectly, because the example of someone willing to stand up to brazen authority is a good thing, and the chorus has every reason to sing. But that's not the whole story.

#6 bart

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Posted 15 October 2012 - 04:18 PM

Yes, at the end of Fidelio, a great deal of good has been done, directly, and indirectly, because the example of someone willing to stand up to brazen authority is a good thing, and the chorus has every reason to sing. But that's not the whole story.

You answer my question. I'm convinced. I think of the concept "bittersweet." The sense of sweetness is real. But, as you say, it's not "the whole story."Posted Image

#7 Helene

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Posted 15 October 2012 - 04:20 PM

It's like after peace is declared, and almost everyone is genuinely happy, but there are a bunch of people who continue to be tortured and killed or tortured and raped, because the news hasn't traveled fast enough or because they can be.

#8 Helene

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Posted 25 October 2012 - 07:32 PM

Seattle Opera posted a short (51 second) excerpt of Stonikas and Furman singing "O namelose Freude":
http://soundcloud.co...opera-fidelio-o

#9 Paul Parish

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Posted 25 October 2012 - 11:00 PM

Very great opera -- very hard to sing.
How was 'Komm Hofnung'?

The best Florestan I've ever heard -- i have 5 recordings -- was Jon Vickers, not beccause the voice was perfect, but because the suffering was so convincing, and the vision was so piercing.

Ludwig was also great, and the chorus made you smell the fresh air.

Gwyneth Jones, i was very lucky, I saw her on a good day, was out of this world as Leonora. She sang all her most difficult passages beautifully that day -- and when she went looking among the prisoners for her husband, I was completely gone, it was so convincing, so moving, -- what a great actress.

There is nothing like 'Fidelio.'

#10 Helene

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:10 PM

Paul, I missed your post until now.

Stonikas' "Komm Hoffnung" was mixed: there were parts that were brilliant and parts where it sounded like her voice wasn't anchored. It was the only part of the day that wasn't uniformly brilliant for her. Her second act was fantastic.


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