Mark Gresham | 7 JUN 2019
On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano, performed a concert version of Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, as the grand finale offering of their 2018-19 subscription season.
The concert, which will will be repeated on Saturday night at Symphony Hall, included the ASO Chorus and featured nine soloists: soprano Christine Goerke as Leonore, disguised as a boy named Fidelio; tenor Clay Hilley as her imprisoned husband, Florestan; bass Morris Robinson as Don Fernando, a minister of state; baritone Nmon Ford as the prison governor, Don Pizarro; bass Arthur Woodley as Rocco, the chief jailer; soprano Laura Tatulescu as Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline, who has fallen in love with Fidelio; and tenor David Walton as the turnkey Jacquino, who is in love with Marzelline; plus tenor Richard Clement and bass-baritone Stephen Ozcomert ass the First and Second Prisoners.
Concert versions of operas run natural risks of losing important elements presented by staging. with Fidelio, but it also bypasses some of the staging problems the opera imposes. The real difference between a staged and concert Fidelio, however, is a matter of perceptual emphasis. Fidelio has a somewhat unfocused narrative that’s underpinned by highly focused ideas. Staged versions tend to draw more attention to the dramatic narrative, but a concert version brings out the stronger element of those strong, underlying ideas, which are consistent with those behind much of Beethoven’s middle-period output: primary themes of heroism and faithfulness, with freedom and justice as their close secondary companions – not the other way around.
The 21st-century mindset might be indignant that while Florestan is freed and other prisoners released, the final chorus is not directly about freedom or injustice, but the celebration of having a brave and faithful wife. As a product of its time, Fidelio is is first and foremost about heroism: the summoning of human courage and strength in the most desperate of circumstances.
Worth noting that the premiere of the opera’s first version took place late in 1805, seven months after the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, known as the “Eroica.” The idea of the idealized hero had definitely been on Beethoven’s mind.
The opera’s opening scene may at first seem out of place, more at home in l18th century comic opera. It presents a putative love triangle as a device to reveal Leonore’s disguise to the audience, but not to the other characters. The two other characters involved in that scene, Marzelline and Jacquino, are essentially forgotten and their relationship left unresolved at the opera’s end – though Marzelline is given a few measures to express astonishment (or dismay and confusion) at the revelation that Fidelio is really Leonore, a woman rather than a man. and that stage directors will have Marzelline and Jacquino holding hands during the final scene, just to make amends that the libretto does not.
Yes, Fidelio is a somewhat flawed work in terms of its dramatic narrative, one that is difficult to stage, but its success as compelling story is, again, grounded in its underlying ideas. That Beethoven doggedly persisted through three versions of the opera (including four overtures) is testimony to the importance of those concepts to the composer, despite the failures of the first two versions – with plenty of evidence of the composer’s struggles with it evident in both his correspondence and early drafts of the score.
Fidelio was also the product of deeply contentious times for Europe: The Napoleonic Wars. Vienna was under French occupation at the opera’s 1805 premiere, which was largely attended by French military officers. The final version premiered in Vienna on May 23, 1814, the very same day an armistice was signed between French Empire and the Sixth Coalition of allies, and less than six weeks after Napoleon had abdicated as Emperor. A treaty was signed by end of May. Ironic that the libretto for Fidelio had its origins the preceding era of Revolutionary France.
The underlying idea is a child of those times, but still resonates with modern audiences: Florestan, jailed for his outspoken political beliefs and whistle-blowing about a corrupt official, is rescued by his wife, Leonore, who has disguised herself as a young man named Fidelio (“the faithful one”) to gain access to the prison in hopes of freeing her wrongly imprisoned husband, who was rumored to be dead – a rumor she does not believe. Ultimately, she liberates Florestan, her identity is revealed, and her courage is praised by the townspeople and other released prisoners. Beethoven’s music for this happy ending is spectacular.
There are plenty of highlights in this un-staged performance. One particular standout is Leonore’s passionate “Abscheulicher” aria, sung just after she overhears Don Pizarro’s intent to murder Florestan. Another the Act II duet of Leonore and Falorestan,“O namenlose Freude” (“O namesless joy”) just after Florestan’s life has been saved. Goerke and Hilley both turned excellent lead performances. Robinson was a commanding presence as the minister of state, Don Fernancdo; Ford offers up a bitingly threatening presence as Don Pizzaro; Woodley is delightfully convincing as Rocco, the most the prominent role after Leonore and Florestan; Tatulescu and Walton provided suitable levity to the opera’s early comic scenes as Marzelline and Jacquino.
In a nutshell: The forces which Spano and the ASO have assembled are strong overall, and the concert format bypasses the more difficult pitfalls of staging Fidelio, making for a well-focused, compelling performance that is worth experiencing. ■