The audience at Opera Boston’s performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio on Friday October 22 at the Cutler Majestic Theater was treated to some superb singing and playing. The cast —Christine Goerke (Leonore), Andrew Funk (Rocco), Michael Hendrick (Florestan), Meredith Hansen (Marzelline), Scott Bearden (Don Pizzaro), Jason Ferrante (Jaquino) and Robert Honeysucker (Don Fernando) — was excellent throughout, all boasting of big and beautiful instruments that they used to full effect. The orchestra played beautifully under the skilled baton of Gil Rose, something we have come to expect from this fine conductor. Special kudos must go to the horn players (Kenneth Pope, Alyssa Daly, Dana Christensen and Carolyn Cantrell) for their virtuosity…and courage. Fidelio has some of the most treacherous horn parts in the literature, and except for a few moments in which the horn players reminded us that they were human, they dispatched their parts with aplomb and hunting-call energy.
That said, there were a few ensemble and intonation problems in the overture and opening scene, as well as some scary moments at various points in the opera when the singers and the orchestra occupied different time zones. Nevertheless, maestro Rose was able to recover quickly and bring everything back on track, offering us an interpretation that was solid and professional, although somewhat lacking in dramatic energy. The orchestra in an opera, especially one written by that great symphonist Beethoven who could tell a story without words, should participate in the action, not merely accompany it.
Despite the fine singing and playing, however, the evening was not a complete success. The problem was the production itself. Stage director and scenic designer Thaddeus Strassberger certainly gave us some beautiful things to see, but much of the staging and scenery seemed to have little if any connection to the actual story, a powerful tale of corruption, injustice, torture, heroism and ultimate redemption that takes place in a fetid prison.
For example, Act I was set in the large room of what appears to be a beautiful palace, with marble floors, gold decorations, elegant furniture and large paintings of church leaders on the walls. The only way the audience would know that they were watching a scene in a prison, and a horrible one at that, was a set of bars hanging from the ceiling that was lowered at strategic moments in the action. More troublesome, however, was the action itself, which seemed to have little relation to what the protagonists were thinking, feeling, or even just saying. This became apparent in the very first scene in which the jailer Rocco’s daughter Marzelline is trying to deflect the amorous advances of the doorkeeper Jaquino, who won’t take no for an answer. At one point in their duet Marzelline sings, in obvious frustration: “I’ll try not to give him any encouragement, and maybe he will just go away.” What, then, would prompt her to remove her outer garments in front of Jaquino and reveal her pretty negligee or nightgown?
Similar discrepancies and disconnects plagued much of this production, but perhaps the most serious miscalculation occurred at what many consider to be the most famous moment in the opera: the Prisoners’ Chorus, in which Fidelio has convinced Rocco to release the prisoners so that they might enjoy a few moments of sunlight, fresh air and freedom. This scene, with its poignant expression of Enlightenment ideals, was so popular and evoked such a powerful reaction that audiences repeatedly demanded it to be encored throughout the 19th century. Inexplicably, Strassberger staged this crucial moment inside the elegant room, and one had to wonder why the tortured and starved inmates would emerge from their cells and sing “oh fresh air, oh beautiful sunlight” in a dark room that didn’t even have a window to let in the air and sunshine.
More the pity, because this performance of Beethoven’s great opera had almost all the other elements to make it a great production: wonderful singing and playing. It would, in fact, have been perfect as a concert version of the opera.