Met’s superb ensemble cast rises to the challenge of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

Fri Mar 17, 2017 at 12:56 pm
Hanna-Elizabeth Müller, Falk Struckmann and Adrianne Pieczonka in Beethoven's "Fidelio" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Hanna-Elizabeth Müller, Falk Struckmann and Adrianne Pieczonka in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Among our most revered composers, few struggled so mightily as Beethoven. Lacking the natural melodic inspiration of a Schubert or a Rossini, his talent lay in his ability to spin complex structures from relatively simple themes—that struggle produced much of his greatest work, its fruits clearly audible in such troubled and radical strokes of genius as the Ninth Symphony.

The Metropolitan Opera on Thursday revived Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, a work that has long divided critical opinion. In it, we hear a different kind of struggle: the great master of form’s grappling with melody becomes only more apparent in his vocal writing. The overture (Fidelio, in this case) is justly celebrated, and the prelude to Act II is a gorgeous, tearful reflection as emotionally charged as anything else in the opera. But in much of the rest, Beethoven seems constrained by the medium, missing the idiosyncratic ingenuity that is his unmistakable trademark, and ending up in a musical idiom that does not truly feel like his own.

The Met’s ensemble cast nonetheless gave an admirable account of the piece, grounded in the superior work of the supporting cast. As Leonore, the young woman who poses as a prison guard named Fidelio in order to free her husband, Adrianne Pieczonka gave a committed performance, showing an amber glow to her soprano. Act I’s “Komm Hoffnung,” was among the evening’s vocal highlights, a heartfelt lover’s plea that alternately sighed and thrilled.

Klaus Florian Vogt had a rougher time as Florestan, the husband rotting away in the dank cellar of a political prison. A little too light to feel like a true heldentenor, he sounded thin much of the night, even as he projected into the house with little difficulty. “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!”, the solitary lament with which he opens the second act, was an ordeal, as he pushed his voice all the way through and badly undershot a couple of notes at the tops of phrases. Matters were not helped by his less-than-convincing dramatic presence, as he resorted mostly to canned “opera” gestures.

The most memorable performances of the night belonged to the supporting cast, superb singers and actors who supplied much of the color of the piece. Bass-baritone Falk Struckmann was superb as Rocco, the kindly warden of the prison, showing a sinewy voice and playing the role with a likable, avuncular affability. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller made a strong debut as his daughter Marzelline, the young maid who falls in love with “Fidelio.” She owns a powerful soprano voice, bright and lemony, with a few barbs in it. Her voice proved a perfect fit for her portrayal, played with a waspish ferocity that melted easily into lovestruck innocence.

Greer Grimsley brought imposing bluster to the role of the cruel governor Don Pizarro, here a kind of tyrannical bureaucrat obsessed with preserving his petty fiefdom. Marzelline’s suitor Jaquino is unfortunately flattened out in the production, coming across as little more than an abusive creep; David Portillo soldiered on with his reedy tenor. Günther Groissböck sported a sensational, growling bass as Don Fernando, the minister ex machina who appears to dispense justice. His rich, earthy sound was arresting the moment he made his entrance, but smoothed over effortlessly into a soothing, flowing lyricism.

The Met Orchestra was brilliant under the baton of Sebastian Weigle–limpid but energetic, playing with beautiful tenderness in the score’s softer moments. The choristers stood right up next to the stars of the evening, with the men in particular beaming in the wondrous rapture of the prisoners’ chorus. That Act I chorus, which comprises some of the most moving music in the opera, also featured the free, heroic tenor of Kang Wang and the muscular bass-baritone of Paul Corona in brief but impressive solos.

Jürgen Flimm’s 2000 production does not offend, but does little to illuminate, either. Given a nebulous mid-20th-century setting, the staging tries to make the piece far darker and heavier than it can truly support, casting the prison as a bleak, run-down old pile of cement, injecting hints of violence into the relationship between Jaquino and Marzelline, and showing a bloodied Pizarro in his final moments with a noose fitted around his neck. While the work’s underlying ideas of liberty and justice are not to be tossed aside, this is not a brooding philosophical meditation, and attempts to turn it into Doctor Zhivago make the opera seem even lighter than it is.

Fidelio runs through April 8. James Morris takes over the role of Don Fernando beginning April 5. metopera.org


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