in: Reviews

October 23, 2010

Superb Singing and Playing, Questionable Production in Opera Boston’s Fidelio

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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.

Scott Bearden as Don Pizarro and Andrew Funk as Rocco with unnamed female prisoner (Clive Grainger photo)

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.

Mark Kroll will be performing a clavichord recital on November 5 sponsored by the Boston Clavichord Society, and a harpsichord recital on November 11 at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. He will also be presenting a paper on Moscheles and Handel at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Indianapolis on November 7, and is currently writing a biography of Moscheles for Boydell and Brewer Press.

11 Comments

  1. As I was leaving after the performance Friday evening one of the people behind me was saying to his companion that the final scene took the focus off Leonore. To me that was the worst part of the production. They had Jaquino literally turning a cartwheel now that Fidelio was now longer a prospect for Leonore. Worse even that than was that they made Pizzaro the focal point of the action — his chair had been placed on a couple of steel mesh tables. He was tied into it and a hood was placed over his head. Eventually the hood was removed and a cross was placed in his hands. Lights below the table glowed ever brighter white and yellow (to represent flames, I suppose) and finally the cross fell from his hands and he slumped in the chair as if dead.

    When the director and other non-musicians came to take their curtain calls, there were some well deserved boos from behind me in the mezzanine. Regrettably, I was too timid to join in.

    An article in the Globe makes it clear that the dungeon and prison, as well as Rocco’s quarters are supposed to be part of the palace of Don Pizzaro, the head of the Inquisition. Knowing that makes some things clear, such as why Marzelline is posing in her underwear for a painter as the model for a painting he is doing. The painting if for Pizzaro, not for Rocco’s benefit.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 23, 2010 at 10:16 pm

  2. I agree, the singing and orchestra were superb. But the direction was often aesthetically a jumble, in addition to being rationally incoherent at times.

    The nonsensical staging was apparent from the initial curtain rising. Center-stage, dominating the view, hung the magnificent painting by Zurburan (which coincidentally I had just seen this year in a museum in Seville). But why were actors dressed as the same white-robed, white-hooded Carthusian monks that were depicted in the painting sitting on the floor polishing the furniture? Absurd! Carthusian monks lived in solitary cells, and they’d never be the minions of a jailor and corrupt church official living in a lavish palace.

    It was equally painful seeing Florestan supposedly in jail, chained to the same ornate floor of the palace. This is supposed to be a believable scene of a “fetid” subterranean cell? They couldn’t throw a dark mat down on the floor or even a sheet to cover it up?

    Another example in the jail cell: Diagonal lines cutting across the stage from the ceiling to the floor (presumably representing the path of angelic light descending) which made a painful visual clash with the long vertical rope in front from which a light swung back and forth (presumably representing the angel Leonora come to save him). Ridiculous and distracting!

    The drama was undercut in so many ways, most painfully during the scene that should have been the most heart-wrenching. Leonora is supposed to interpose her body between her her husband and his would-be-murderer as she pulls out a gun and declares, “You’ll have to kill me first!” Yet Leonora was positioned in the back of the stage — I barely noticed she even had a gun in her hand, and her shooting from a distance lacked the immediacy of a bodily obstruction to the murderous bishop.

    I kept thinking as I watched it, “Well, the direction could have been worse.” At least most of the time I could concentrate on the music. The voices were stunning and the orchestra all that could be desired. What a shame the quality of the production didn’t come close.

    Comment by Gloria Leitner — October 24, 2010 at 7:58 pm

  3. I agree with the previous comments about the disastrous staging of this “Fidelio”. After the Sunday matinee, audience members were invited to a conversation with the stage director, conductor and Christine Goerke. Mr. Strassberger strove mightily to justify his excesses, but when I questioned the onstage activity while Leonore/Fidelio sings her big first act scena, I got a round of applause; the audience was buying none of it. I attended the BSO’s concert version a couple of years ago, never expecting that a fully-staged performance would occur so soon after. I now have the feeling that I may have to wait for a long time before I see a rational production hereabouts.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — October 26, 2010 at 6:08 pm

  4. I agree with the review and the above comments. I didn’t mind the Spanish Inquisition idea, however, some of the directions are just absurd and distracting – the torture of the prisoner by Pizarro, the swinging lamp in the “dungeon” when Florestan sang his aria, and the final scene. I couldn’t figure out why there was a pile of spotlights and florescent lights underneath the mesh table where Pizarro was until I read the reviews (to signify a pyre).

    I was at the final performance. There were still some scary moments when the orchestra and the singers sounded out of sync. Also, perhaps Ms Goerke has tired herself out in the past 2 performances, as I thought she sounded a bit worn out.

    Comment by YuenK — October 27, 2010 at 10:49 am

  5. Lloyd Schwartz of the Boston Phoenix has joined the chorus of critics who were disdainful of Mr. Strassberger’s direction. I hope that “management” at Opera Boston has received an earful about how displeased people are about the desecration of “Fidelio” they put before the public, and that they will never engage this mountebank ever again for any future production!

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — October 28, 2010 at 5:46 pm

  6. CODA: Christine Goerke presented an overwhelming recital at Tufts yesterday (Friday) night. Her command of styles and languages, her total engagement with Gluck, Berg, Poulenc, Verdi, Warren and a set of spirituals earned her a standing ovation. She also graced the enthusiastic audience with three encores.

    It was such a thrill to see and hear her unencumbered by a misconceived production. The excellent new performace center enhanced her vocal and physical presence to wonderful effect. It was truly a night to remember.

    Comment by perry — October 30, 2010 at 9:23 am

  7. The real problems of this Fidelio were that of the conductor, Gill Rose. I shall say no more, but if this company wants to be the ENO to Covent Garden then they need a musical and artistic director to suit!

    Strassberger’ production showed a depth of knowledge and nod to an historical account of Spain during the darkest days of Catholic church. In response to the above comments;
    Why should Pizzaro not be the focal point of the attention, what we are shown is that evil exsists within even the most sacred of places. It was very common that a palace would contain a prison, the prisoners breath of fresh air takes on a symbolic meaning. When such places were built it was very common to have overtly decorated public rooms and private rooms which were much more simple in style. Churches were in effect an early form of virtual reality in that they should astound the general folk and make you believe that you were in God’s presence.

    This was not a desecration of Fidelio rather a portrayal of an historical point of view which fitted Fidelio perfectly. We should not be subject to having to watch the same classical production of a piece wherever we are in the world. I have seen countless Turandot’s, Traviata’s and Tosca’s that look the same and are directed the same. At the same time I do not beleive that the German interpretation is the way forward as well. What we need is different productions to make us think and discuss long after the curtain has closed.

    Strassberger’s production was succesful in that it has made us discuss what Fidelio can be and to what lengths we can assume an intepretation. In many ways he has acheived a balance between presenting a classical production and twisted it into a horror of the inquisition making us question the Church and what is good and evil.

    Comment by Maria Gialla — November 1, 2010 at 10:12 am

  8. May I also add, whilst bravo’s and boo’s to not make an opera a success there were certainly many bravo’s I heard. Let us be more Italian and have longer applause, more audience participation in there approval/disapproval all round!

    Comment by Maria Gialla — November 1, 2010 at 10:17 am

  9. I am not too trusting of Strassberger’s depth of knowledge. I believe he said in the program notes that the Spanish Inquisition started in 1542.

    Comment by Amy Kaufman — November 1, 2010 at 11:45 am

  10. Re: Above comment; Whilst there are no exact dates for the start of the inquisition 1542 is not inaccurate. Some sources even say it started as early as 1300 with the inquisitioning of Jews. The point here is to understand that the idea of the qustioning and torture of people’s such as Jews, Muslims so called heretics began very early and this formed part of the crux to Strassbergers production!

    Comment by Maria Gialla — November 2, 2010 at 6:12 am

  11. I found the production a bit grandiose and colorful, as customary Fidelio is staged in grey subdued hues. As many modern productions, it had some non-singing actors like the poor girl on the table towards the end which was supposed to titillate the audience. Overall, it was not as offensive as similar tricks in other productions in modern opera houses; in fact, this one was a very conservative interpretation – definitely in Berlin in Deutsche Oper they would take a a full advantage of the prison theme, and would revel in their favorite opera attributes – guns, suitcases, violence, black leather, etc. Thus I think seeing a reference to lavish Catholic paraphernalia was actually refreshing.

    The problem with the production was the singing itself – Florestan (Michael Hendrick) simply could not sing his only solo aria at the beginning of Act II “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!”. It was quite unbelievable that his voice broke a few times and the showcase, main aria turned into a disaster. In Boston the public does boo, but they would definitely do it in La Scala or Berlin. And deservingly so – with competition between singers so high, it is hard to understand how a professional opera singer these days could not perform the aria, especially that his role is not huge. In addition, this Florestan was more than well-nourished; since the role is supposed to call for an emaciated prisoner who already spent two years in a dungeon, this obese man looked really ridiculous. Twenty years ago it was not important and fat singers sang 14 year-old Giulietta, but today it just doesn’t fly; the dramatic element is ruined. Again, with so many great singers available, it is not clear why Michael Hendrick was cast in the major role – he was not a fit neither vocally, nor visually.

    Of course, the overture in the second act was not played – it is not necessary to include it indeed, but it only reflects the quality of the orchestra.

    Leonora was excellent, however, and other singers imparted solid performance. Overall, due to Florestan, it was not a successful performance; but if he sang better, it could end up as a satisfying one. At the same time, Fidelio is a notoriously difficult opera to stage. It was brave for Opera Boston to stage it.

    Comment by Anna Shlimovich — September 24, 2011 at 4:07 am

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