A brilliantly updated ‘Fidelio’ comes to Santa Fe

A brilliantly updated ‘Fidelio’ comes to Santa Fe

Fidelio/Leonore (Alex Penda) is reunited with Florestan (Paul Groves) in SFO's new
Fidelio/Leonore (Alex Penda) is reunited with Florestan (Paul Groves) in SFO's new "Fidelio." (Credit: Ken Howard)

SANTA FE, N.M., August 13, 2014 – Continuing with its 2014 “update” motif, the Santa Fe Opera is presenting its first ever production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” this month, having debuted its new-look version on July 31. SFO updates Beethoven’s original, with considerable, almost startling effectiveness, to some time in 1930s Germany under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

As with the company’s updated production of “Carmen,” this version of “Fidelio” also resonates with today’s still ongoing battles for freedom in Ukraine as well as in the increasingly fragmented Middle East.

izarro (Greer Grimsley) and his Nazi thugs inBeethoven's "Fidelio."
Pizarro (Greer Grimsley) and his Nazi thugs in a sensational new concept for Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” (Credit: Ken Howard)

Beethoven himself based his only opera—whose full title actually reads “Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe” (“Leonore, or the Triumph of Married Love” in English)—on an earlier 1798 French opera. That opera’s libretto was adapted for Beethoven’s needs by German librettist and lawyer Joseph Sonnleithner who shared the composer’s passion for freedom and hatred of tyranny.

And that is really what “Fidelio” is all about: the liberation of a people as represented by the hoped-for liberation of Florestan, an imprisoned nobleman guilty only of attempting to oppose the crimes of another nobleman, the current dictator Pizarro.

Trapped in Pizarro’s dungeons, Florestan is doomed. But, impersonating an out-of-work youth named Fidelio, Florestan’s stout-hearted and determined wife, Leonore, gains a menial job in the prison and formulates a daring plot to liberate her husband. Thus, Beethoven’s opera focuses not only on the political—specifically, man’s need to free himself from tyranny. It also holds up the political and moral power of married love as mankind’s highest redemptive ideal.

Both were lofty notions at the time. But they were popular enough, at least among Beethoven’s own people, to win the opera a modest success during its first performances in Vienna in 1805.

But, for various reasons, Beethoven fussed over the opera for years, settling on its more or less final version, first performed in 1814. It’s essentially this version, along with its shorter, more efficient “Fidelio Overture,” that’s usually performed today, as is the case with this uncommonly effective and passionate SFO production.

Despite being composed by a giant like Beethoven, “Fidelio,” many critics do not regard the work as most compelling opera in the repertoire. Although it contains many moments of dramatic and sublime vocal and orchestral music, its solos and ensembles are not especially memorable, anticipating in an odd way the verismo style of opera that came to dominate the second half of the 19th century.

Marzelline (Devon Guthrie), daughter of jailer Rocco (Manfred Hemm).
Marzelline (Devon Guthrie), daughter of jailer Rocco (Manfred Hemm) is attracted to Fidelio. (Credit: Ken Howard)

Adding to the issue, “Fidelio’s” semi-comic secondary plot—the never-to-happen romance between Fidelio and the jailor’s daughter—never really gets off the ground. Its central characters seem more like archetypes than real people. And, perhaps surprising for first time attendees, it’s an opera conceived and performed in a singspiel format, without sung recitatives.

Perhaps for these reasons, although it’s remained in the active canon for two centuries more or less, “Fidelio” is not performed nearly as frequently as, say, Wagner or the more popular Italian operas.

Indeed, our only other opportunity to see “Fidelio” performed live in recent years was a peculiar Washington National Opera production some years ago. It was presented, as best that company could, in the opera-hostile DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, where the WNO performed for a year and a half while the Kennedy Center Opera House was undergoing renovation.

The singing in that production was good. But its weird staging—which included rows of hanging laundry and sheets in the second half that obscured the singers from most of the audience for a considerable period of time— pretty much eliminated any opportunity for character development and nuance.

So for us, at least by contrast, the gloomy, gray, meticulously detailed two-tier set of the Santa Fe Opera’s new production provided this “Fidelio” with a stark, dramatic visual sweep that felt true to the composer’s intent.

Leonore (Alex Penda) discovers her husband Florestan (Paul Groves).
Leonore (Alex Penda) discovers her husband Florestan (Paul Groves) in Pizarro’s dungeon. (Credit: Ken Howard).

Adding to that an entirely apt time-and-place update that envisions Florestan and company as oppressed and brutalized by jackbooted Nazis instead of some unknown tyrant from the late 18th century, and you now have an opera that restores for a 21st century audience what must have been the look and feel of a genuinely radical music statement created and revised during the pan-European turmoil of the Napoleonic era.

The emotional impact rushes in for the audience. Everyone knows who and what this production’s bad guys really are. Kudos to set designer Charlie Corcoran and costume designer Camille Assaf for bringing this setting to life for our own times. And a “Bravo” as well to director Stephen Wadsworth who created a sense of urgency and movement that gave this production’s a visceral look and feel.

With the time, place and setting imaginatively refreshed, all Santa Fe’s “Fidelio” required was a cast of singer-actors who could bring its characters to life while tackling Beethoven’s long, difficult arias and ensembles without succumbing to vocal exhaustion. And that’s exactly what this fine production delivers to the audience.

Soprano Alex Penda was feisty and brave in the trouser role of Fidelio/Leonore, Beethoven’s heroine who risks it all to save her doomed husband from his seemingly inevitable fate. Her character was surprisingly convincing, particularly in the opera’s early innings where her Fidelio alter ego has to deal with the romantic advances of the jailor’s daughter, Marzelline.

Vocally, Ms. Penda excelled, taking, in our opinion, a somewhat masculine approach to her diction and delivery, appropriate for a woman in male disguise who’s trying to be convincing as she infiltrates the prison’s security. She also dealt forthrightly with Beethoven’s strenuous, heroic arias and their lengthy phrasing, apparently without fatiguing despite her character’s substantial amount of time on stage.

As Florestan, who doesn’t actually appear until the second act, tenor Paul Groves was both poignant and lyrical as he lamented his fate, blending some intentional weariness into his vocal delivery, appropriate and effective for portraying a character who is being slowly starved to death.

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley made for a genuinely menacing Pizarro/Nazi officer without allowing his portrayal to slip into parody. His sharp, crisp, biting approach to both the verbal and vocal aspects of his role, adding to the oppressive atmosphere of the opera before redemption is at hand.

As the good-hearted but constrained jailor Rocco, bass Manfred Hemm accurately portrayed, we think, a man who buries his true feelings toward authority in order to make a living and protect his family, an issue many of us face at some time in life and one that the average German citizen under the Nazis would have been all to aware of.

Mr. Hamm also gave a temperate, sympathetic vocal hue to his character, with his darker passages tinged alternately with sorrow and wistfulness.

Rocco’s daughter, Marcelline, is in some ways the hardest character to portray in “Fidelio.” To the audience, Marcelline can seem a bit dense, failing to recognize the object of her affections is not a man but a woman. And indeed, in this opera, Marcelline is intended to provide a touch of comic relief to some degree, although Beethoven did not exactly excel at humor.

Pizarro is defeated and the prisoners are liberated.
We do get an uplifting ending as Pizarro is defeated and the prisoners are liberated. (Credit: Ken Howard)

But soprano Devon Guthrie brought considerable sympathy and vocal sophistication to her role, making us feel a bit sorry for Marzelline rather than making her the object of ridicule.

Lesser roles were filled out nicely as well, including Joshua Dennis as Marzelline’s understandably impatient and irritable former beaux and Evan Hughes as Fernando, the good guy prime minister who arrives in the nick of time to help thwart Pizarro’s final, fatal intentions.

A big thumbs up to the Santa Fe Opera’s chorus, whose delivery of the “Prisoners’ Chorus” was extraordinarily moving and exquisitely nuanced. And their rousing hymn of freedom as they joined the happy victors in this production’s finale rivaled in spirit the greatly celebrated choral finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Another fine performance by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, this time under the steady baton of the company’s new chief conductor, Harry Bicket, capped off a truly memorable performance of this sometimes elusive opera, one that this summer’s audiences in Santa Fe will almost certainly come to regard as a gold standard long into the future.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

The Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Fidelio” runs through August 21. For tickets and information visit the Santa Fe Opera’s web site.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17