Los Angeles Opera presents Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

Review by David Gregson. September 18, 2007.

Although he was capable of penning astonishingly theatrical symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas, Ludwig van Beethoven was someone klutzy when it came to finding his way around an actual stage. The dramaturgy of Fidelio, his “only opera” (but one that exists in various different forms and includes three abandoned overtures), is largely inept. Of course, it’s also a transcendent masterpiece that could move a rock to tears.

It’s also extremely hard to sing and very tricky to cast – and it needs a fine chorus and orchestra and an exciting, experienced conductor who has all the Beethoven symphonies in his head.

A clever stage director and production designer would be nice – although putting the whole thing on as an oratorio can be extremely effective.

With its current production of this problematic piece, the Los Angeles Opera earns some very high marks indeed. Listeners who dig the wax of their favorite classic recordings out of their ears are bound to be thrilled. The cast is top notch, and the stage production is handsomely gloomy and relatively free of the expected Eurotrash gimmicks. There is no in-your-face politicization of the text – so the prisoners are not wearing orange Abu Ghraib jumpsuits and the villainous Don Pizzaro does not look like Donald Rumsfeld. There is a great deal of video/film enhancement, especially in the second act, but it works extremely well and constitutes a consistent aesthetic vision.

Since this is Beethoven, we turn first to James Colon who propels the music and drama forward with the force of a category five hurricane. He observes the tradition of placing Beethoven’s third discarded overture (the Leonore No. Three) between the penultimate and last scenes, and this is just fine for those of us who have grown too old to object to this practice anymore. Beethoven clearly knew that the Leonore Number Three is so fabulous, complete and self-contained that it doesn’t need an opera to follow it – so he replaced it with the more anemic Fidelio overture instead. Very wise Ludwig. But what conductor can resist throwing in the Number Three, even if it does put a drag on the evening’s progress. Audiences go wild.

I could imagine a better cast only if the dead returned to life. Even the First Prisoner (tenor Robert MacNeil) and Second Prisoner (bass James Creswell) were memorably superb! As the title heroine, Fidelio aka Leonore, soprano Anja Kampe might meet her match in Karita Mattila, but probably nobody else. Kampe is going to have a big career! And as Leonore’s long-suffering and waiting-to-be-rescued husband, Florestan, tenor Klaus Florian Vogt has exactly what it takes to negotiate Beethoven’s murderously high tessitura. Look – when larger-of-voice Ben Heppner gets up into that “Ein Engle Leonoren” and “O namen, namen, namenlose Freude” territory, we live in terror afraid for the voice to crack!

Believe it or not, the incomparable basso Matti Salminen is still singing – and his Rocco is a joy. And the critic who suggested soprano Rebekah Camm and tenor Greg Fedderly were just OK as Marzelline and Jacquino must have had rocks in his head. German baritone Eike Wilm Schutte was fine as Don Pizarro, and he might have made a better impression had Salminen not been booming around the basement.

All the elements of the physical production (credits below) were apt and well-integrated, and the video enhancements excellent. They included some remarkable and ghostly humans (who were in some cases doubled by real bodies on stage), some kinetic excursions into and out of the bowels of the prison, and an impressive animated sunburst rendered in highly subdued colors including grey and smoggy orange and blue.

A choreographed drill team may have seemed silly to some, but it offered a moment of ambiguously comic relief.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio

Saturday September 8, 2007 6:00 p.m.
Saturday September 15, 2007 7:30 p.m.
Sunday September 23, 2007 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday September 26, 2007 7:30 p.m.
Saturday September 29, 2007 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday October 3, 2007 7:30 p.m.
Saturday October 6, 2007 2:00 p.m.

LEONORE Anja Kampe
FLORESTAN Klaus Florian Vogt
DON PIZARRO Eike Wilm Schulte
ROCCO Matti Salminen
JACQUINO Greg Fedderly

CONDUCTOR James Conlon

2 hours 50 minutes, including one intermission.

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