I am deeply sympathetic to what a company like the Promenade Opera Project must be going through. A small group whose mission statement uses the work “immersive” twice finds itself in a historical moment where “immersion” has been taken away from live performance. It is even worse to imagine what it must be like to be a young artist at this time, deprived of the outlet you have dedicated your life to, plunged into a purgatory of waiting to see when and if you can consider resuming your career more or less at its start. It is through that lens of imagined desperation that I watched this online Fidelio. While it is not a finished piece of work, I feel an obligation to find something of value in the gesture.
The production is the kind of event I hope we will all look back on in a year with indulgent smiles, remembering the effort needed to make any kind of performance exist. It is opera-as-video-chat, performer recording their parts individually in separate spaces, most of which appear to be their living rooms. A piano provides accompaniment. There are small touches of costuming: Leonore wears a knit hat when presenting as Fidelio, for example. Every now and then one of the performer’s spaces is lighted — there’s red or blue light to indicate the subterranean location at the beginning of the second act. But really, we just see and hear a number of talented artists singing Beethoven to their laptops. Dan Rogers is credited as “Stage/Film Director” but there’s not a vision here, just the best effort of a number of people working in a medium almost certainly entirely unlike the one they usually work in. The opera has been split into three “episodes,” perhaps calling to mind a streaming series, but it seems more likely that an unrelieved two hours of such essentially unstaged and underproduced singing would simply be too much to take.
I have not seen other Promenade productions, but they sound interesting, if perhaps a little strained. According to its website the company offered a Massenet Cendrillon in 2018, and a La Clemenza di Tito in 2017 performed under the rubric “Justice or Mercy” that “invited the audience to decide the ending: JUSTICE or MERCY!” A few small gestures of attitude survive in this production. For example, during the music that plays during Don Pizarro’s entrance, we see him walk into a modest bedroom and mix himself a cocktail. Then he watches the news (one can see it’s a Black Lives Matter protest) with a sour face, looking like the bureaucratic middle-manager he really is. Nothing is made of it; it feels like a note for a possible later production.
The singers acquit themselves reasonably well, though the dry and close acoustics hardly flatter, and the Frankensteinian editing needed to bring the ensembles together can’t keep them from blurring into indistinctness at times.
Ultimately this recording says more about our current situation than about this particular opera. Promenade is asking $20 per episode, or $50 for a “pass” to all three. You can’t justify that price on the quality of the production, especially considering the many excellent versions available to stream. Consider this then a gesture of hope and support for a fledgling company, and as a way to see young performers doing what needs to be done to be heard in 2020. If you pay for a pass before the end of the week, you will get to see the cast I watched, plus watch a second, different cast tackle the piece in November. Tickets HERE.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.