Seattle Opera's new production would make Beethoven proud
by Alice Bloch -
SGN Contributing Writer
Through October 27
Following the triumphant conclusion of Fidelio on opening night (October 13), Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins began the Q&A session by grinning broadly and saying, 'This kind of evening is the reason I got into opera.' I couldn't agree more - I became an opera fan because of thrilling productions and performances like this one.
Beethoven wrote four different overtures for his only opera, and most productions use the last of the four - the somewhat condensed Fidelio overture. Conductor Asher Fisch's choice of the long, superbly constructed Leonore No. 3 overture proved to be a good one, both musically and dramatically. During the overture, a searchlight panned Robert Dahlstrom's stark prison set, illuminating the tall, menacing watchtowers and the enormous expanse of chain-link fence topped by razor wire. By the time the jailer's daughter, Marzelline (Anya Matanovic, an alumna of the Young Artist program), entered and sang the first note of the opera, the audience had fully absorbed the claustrophobic, hopeless atmosphere of a political prison. Matanovic's lovely coloratura and charming demeanor, as she watered a brightly colored flower garden and sang of the anticipated joys of marriage, instantly provided an effective contrast between life on the outside and existence on the inside of the prison walls.
LIBOR A SENSATION
The performance of the night - and probably of the whole season - was Christiane Libor's Leonore (disguised as a man, Fidelio, for most of the opera). Libor has performed Leonore/Fidelio and other important soprano roles of the German repertoire in Europe, where Jenkins discovered her and signed her for this, her American premiere. Her large, supple voice was simply a revelation, and even this role, one of the most demanding ever written, did not tax her stamina. She moved without strain from soft to loud and back again, jumping from the highest to the lowest notes and back again, sounding as beautiful in the last scene as in the first. Just as impressive was her acting skill - she conveyed every emotional nuance, made Leonore's passing as a man almost believable, and portrayed with conviction the strongest, bravest woman in all of opera.
The tenor role of Leonore's husband, Florestan, who has been unjustly imprisoned and tortured for criticizing an official, involves less singing but includes an aria of nearly unequaled difficulty. To my ear, Clifton Forbis's performance was uneven - his voice sounded a bit worn at times, and he seemed to force some of the loud notes. In general he did a good job, but I've heard him do better, and I imagine he will in future performances.
As Rocco, the jailer, bass Arthur Woodley sang and acted splendidly, as did bass-baritone Greer Grimsley as evil warden Don Pizarro. Their terrifying scene together presented abuse of power so convincingly that I could feel myself and other audience members cringe at Pizarro's humiliation of Rocco.
Matanovic managed to give complexity to the ingénue role of Marzelline, and her light soprano voice blended well with Libor's heavier one during their duets. In the smaller role of her suitor, Jaquino, John Tessier showed off a sweet tenor voice and appropriately youthful exuberance.
CHORUS, ORCHESTRA AT THEIR BEST
The Seattle Opera Chorus is always excellent, and Fisch's outstanding conducting gave the chorus more dynamic range and dramatic excitement than usual. The 'Prisoners' Chorus' is a highlight of any production of Fidelio, but I've never found it so beautiful and moving as in this performance.
When Fisch conducts, the orchestra always sounds better than it does under anyone else. He is a marvel. Among the many fine instrumental solos, I'd like to single out Demarre McGill (principal flute), Ben Hausmann (principal oboe), David Gordon (solo trumpet), and Michael Crusoe (timpani) for special praise.
The top-notch team of stage director Chris Alexander, aforementioned set designer Robert Dahlstrom, and lighting designer Duane Schuler did everything right. They turned what could have been a predictable, static evening into a riveting one. Catherine Meacham Hunt's work as costume designer was less obvious, because the opera was set in the present day and the supernumeraries wore their own clothes, but her costumes lent subtlety and dignity to all the characters. As always, Jonathan Dean did a fabulous job on the English captions.
This production of Fidelio is just what the doctor ordered for your election-year malaise - a healthy dose of humanistic optimism, which might just make you believe again that love and courage can conquer tyranny and oppression, that joy can emerge from suffering, and that justice and mercy can prevail.
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FOOTNOTE BY ROD PARKE
The two casts for Fidelio have presented Seattle with a couple of unforgettable debuts: Christiane Libor, described above by Alice Bloch in her first review for SGN, and Ric Furman, a young heldentenor I'm sure we will be hearing a lot about in coming seasons.
There aren't many good heldentenors in the world. There are even fewer who are also excellent actors and attractive on the stage. (Lance Ryan, Siegfried in the Valencia Ring on DVD, comes to mind.) Furman, from Cincinnati, is just such a tenor. Hired originally as 'cover' for Clifton Forbis, he impressed so much in rehearsal that General Director Speight Jenkins decided he needed to give this man his own performance. Thank you, Speight, for such a gift!
Ric is tall, slender, and possessed of a powerful voice of exceptional quality. Uncommonly even throughout the range, his voice is also beautiful and expressive of warmth and humanity. Indeed, his first note on Sunday made me sit up and take notice. Despite his slim stature, he seemed to have stamina to spare. With his perfect technique, the extremely demanding role of Florestan was well within his grasp. I'll be surprised if he doesn't grow into the bigger Wagnerian roles with ease. And in this age of excellent video, how well he might do in our living rooms!
Continuing her success at Seattle Opera after her debut as Turandot, Marcy Stonikas took a little while to warm up, but by the time of the big aria her voice had regained its special warmth and power. This difficult role held no apparent difficulties for her. I eagerly await her next efforts at Seattle Opera.
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