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Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’: The In Series’ biggest small surprise

Written By | Jun 23, 2016

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2016 – After an auspicious opening weekend, Washington’s In Series will wrap up the short run of its astonishing new production of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” with two performances this weekend at the Atlas arts complex on H St. NE.

Stretching the budget to accompany a chamber orchestra of 14 instrumentalists, add a spare but effective set simulating the grim interior of a South American dictatorship prison and adding a skilled task of experienced vocalists, this production was a major effort that could very well mark a significant turning point in this company’s long, interesting and often-times courageous story.

Beethoven’s “Fidelio”—his only opera—is a rather strange bird as operas go. Straddling the uncertain middle ground between a German singspiel (light opera with spoken dialogue and music) and more serious opera, “Fidelio” generally follows a serious personal and political Romantic Era obsession—personal freedom and choice vs. royalist or government dictates—but leavens it with a doomed but still-amusing background romance and an ultimately happy ending that’s more or less “saved by the bell.”

“Fidelio” has plenty of good, Beethoven-style music in it, but really no memorable arias or tunes. In fact, the best known part of the opera is the third of four successive overtures (known as “Leonore No. 3”) that Beethoven wrote for this work as he continued to revise it from the years 1805 until the opera’s final version in 2014. This overture is virtually a self-contained tone-poem in and of itself and so, perhaps oddly, it’s rarely performed when the opera is staged, with most producers and directors choosing to perform the more economical (and less showy) “Fidelio Overture” in a production, as the In Series did here.

What it all boils down to is that companies from time-to-time feel compelled to mount a production of “Fidelio” because, well, it’s Beethoven. But, lacking the immediate tunefulness and box office appeal of something like Puccini’s “La Bohème,” productions of “Fidelio” tend to be rather infrequent.

This reviewer has chanced to catch two live performances of “Fidelio” over the last decade and a half: the first a rather odd Washington National Opera (WNO) production that was uncomfortably mounted in Constitution Hall in 2003 during the Kennedy Center Opera House renovation; and the second, a crisp, well done 2014 production by the Santa Fe Opera.

Read also: WNO’s “Fidelio” at Constitution Hall

WNO’s production was staged against an odd jut-stage backdrop of scenery that on at least one occasion completely blocked the singers from much of the audience as I wrote here in a 2003 review for the Washington Times—which for some reason has scrubbed my name from the byline in its archives:

“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.”

Santa Fe Opera’s more recent production was much more effective, and in some ways similar to the updated approach taken by the In Series in this month’s production, as I noted in my 2014 review for CDN:

“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.”

Read also: A brilliantly updated “Fidelio” comes to Santa Fe

As already noted, the current In Series production updates the action to a dark prison complex located somewhere inside a faltering Latin American dictatorship—alluding, perhaps, to the current situation in Venezuela, or more broadly to the earlier, murderous dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.

Placing this update more firmly in the present, director Nick Olcott, in true In Series fashion, has re-imagined the opera’s libretto in contemporary English with a South American historical flavor, which often includes references to “Fidelio’s” mysterious, doomed key prisoner as one of the “disappeared.”

The names of Beethoven’s characters have been slightly altered as well, when possible, to their Hispanic variants.

What we end up with is a surprisingly “big” version of what we’ve come to expect from the In Series over the years: a well-sung, updated English-language version of an older opera that’s easily accessible to an audience that’s considerably broader-based than a Kennedy Center audience. This enjoyable “Fidelio” dispenses with opera’s generally high tone, focusing instead on the trials and tribulations of every day people caught on the wrong side of an unfolding national tragedy.

And speaking of tragedy… It’s arguable that “Fidelio,” as originally conceived, was more revolutionary rather than tragic, given the salvation and general love-fest that occurs in the opera’s closing moments.

Nick Olcott’s take goes one step further, lightening the texture a bit more by giving greater emphasis to the comic backstory as well as fashioning an even more positive choral finale by sneaking in what sounded like bits of the Ninth Symphony’s triumphant final movement. Opera purists, of course, won’t approve. But the In Series does this sort of thing all the time and its audience tends to like each unique twist that it sees.

As always, however, an opera production stands or falls on the quality of its singers and its orchestra. Here, we have to regard this production as a real winner even though there were a few missteps in Saturday afternoon’s opening performance.

Really big, well-rounded voices were standouts in this production. At the top of the list was soprano Sarah Greenspan in the trouser role of “Fidelio,” the young man who eagerly assist the prison’s jailer-warden Rocco. “Fidelio,” of course, is actually Leonore, wife of Floréstan, our mystery “disappeared” prisoner whose subversive activities have inspired the evil Pizarro to hide him away before terminating his existence. Fidelio/Leonore, like any good guerilla warrior, plans to infiltrate the prison, find her husband if he’s still there, and spring him before Pizarro can get to him.

Ms. Greenspan evinced increasing confidence as her character’s mission reached its climax, with a bold heroic voice that inspired both she and others to action. At times, however, her singing seemed a bit harsh and forced at the top of its range.

Although we don’t get to meet him until the opera’s second stanza, tenor Joe Haughton was a standout as Floréstan, whose powerful instrument gave voice to his country’s call for freedom.

In the third key role, that of the good-hearted and very-conflicted jailer Rocco, baritone Robert Harrelson is strong, sympathetic and compelling, perfectly portraying a prototype of the average citizen who feels compelled to go along with a dictatorship, knowing it’s wrong but also knowing his family may very well be doomed if he doesn’t. It’s a fine, well-calibrated performance from both a musical and theatrical point of view.

The fourth central character is Rocco’s daughter, Marcelita in this production, is nicely portrayed here by soprano Randa Rouweyha. This is, in some respects, the most ungrateful role in “Fidelio,” as Marcelita is the poor girl who’s unintentionally swept off her feet by the young Fidelio, whom she instantly desires to marry.

This being 1814, of course, such a gender-based mistake would have been regarded as the height of light comedy, and it’s still rather amusing even in 2016. More importantly, Mr. Olcott gives this part of the opera more importance, and Ms. Rouweyha, with her bright and eager vocals, helps things considerably with her girlish naiveté and eager approach to the romance we know that never can be.

In lesser but still important roles, baritone Kenneth Derby was suitably brutal and menacing as Rocco’s commanding officer Pizarro, and Jesús Daniel Hernández turned in a nuanced and somewhat edgy performance as Joaquino, a prison employee also in love with Marcelita but thwarted (or so he thinks) by Fidelio. At the very end of the opera, we’re also treated to the big, authoritative baritone voice of Alex Alberqueque as the heroic leader, Fernando, whose forces have come to liberate the prison just in time.

Interestingly in this production, some of its finest moments were in the vocal ensembles and particularly in the male prisoners’ ensemble late in Act I and the choral finale at the end of Act II. This was, hands-down, some of the best male choral singing we’ve heard this year. Tight, crisp, elegant and heartfelt, these ensembles were in many ways the high point of an already fine production.

With regard to the In Series’ much larger than normal orchestral forces—the players sounded quite good and well-balanced for the most part under the baton of music director Stanley Thurston who kept the proceedings well in hand for all but a brief few moments of this production. There were, alas, a few miscues by the French horn. But by and large, this small ensemble went a long way toward making Beethoven sound like Beethoven even without a big, Romantic pit orchestra.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Fidelio” continues at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002 on Saturday, June 25 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 26 at 4 p.m.

Tickets: $23-46.

For tickets and information, including information on group discounts, visit the In Series website, via the In Series ticket reservation number at 202-204-7763, or purchase tickets through the Atlas Box Office at 202-399-7993.

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 Senior 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