18 Sep 2007


Los Angeles Opera opened its 2007 season with Fidelio on September 8th, and on the following day held a gala performance of Verdi’s Requiem.

The Requiem had been planned in honor of the late Edgar Baitzel, LAO’s chief operating officer who lost his battle with cancer earlier this year. With the recent death of Luciano Pavarotti the Requiem took on double duty, but Baitzel had one tribute to himself: during the Fidelio performances, conductor James Conlon honored a request of Baitzel’s to insert the third Leonore overture between the two scenes of act two, as Gustav Mahler had done.

At the second Fidelio performance on 9/15, Conlon and LAO orchestra’s powerful rendition of Leonore III prompted many audience members to a rare mid-performance ovation, and at final curtain, Conlon received the most rapturous applause, and understandably so.

But that is not at all to suggest that the rest of the performance was not creditable, for all in all, director and designer Pier’Alli’s production is dramatic, incisive, and brilliantly designed. Act one’s set features a set of creepy torture devices, with restraints and spikes. Towering walls of dark gray concrete, with metallic grills suggesting the prisoner’s cells, tower over the act one action, which starts in domestic humdrum and grows increasingly darker.

With act two, Pier’Alli uses filmed sequences which take the creepy imagery of act one into an atmosphere not unlike a torture-porn film, as the audience is pulled down through a fearsome labyrinth where Florestan lies chained. He is not seen until after his initial cry of “Gott,” whereupon the scrim on which the film has been projected clears. Deep in the background of the set Pier’Alli and projection designer Sergio Metalli of Ideogramma have found a way to duplicate images, giving a spooky sense of depth. After Leonore has rescued her husband, the stage darkens for the overture, and reopens to brightness, as the final joyful chorus rings out before a kaleidoscope-effect of heraldry images.

What Pier’Alli has created neither overwhelms the truthful plainness of the libretto’s narrative nor tries to distract from it. Fidelio may never be a model for dramatic cohesion, but when the musical values are high, it is a masterpiece that benefits from a production both as respectful and eye-catching as this one.

Vocally, the star of the evening is Anja Kampe as Fidelio/Leonore. As with many a soprano, she does not make the most convincing male, but that becomes an irrelevance as soon as she sings. Full-voiced, secure throughout her range (some weak low notes withstanding), she projected both the character’s bravery and trepidation as she seeks a way to save her spouse. The big aria came across as a coherent narrative, not just a display of vocal force, although she had all the power required.

Klaus Florian Vogt has a Tamino-tinged voice with a surprising amount of force that makes him a creditable Florestan. He seemed to tire near the end of his long aria, disappointingly right at the brighter music that would seem to suit his voice best. He recovered nicely for the rest of the act. A taller man with a modest but appealing stage presence, he will surely be a very valuable performer for years to come.

Matti Salminen has proved his value over the length of his career. At this point, he has most of his power though somewhat less of the tonal allure of his prime, but he is a stage performer who can, with minimal effort, embody a character. His Rocco suited the state of hie voice - somewhat weary, but still at heart a good, caring soul. Eike Wilm Schulte (about half the height of Salminen’s Rocco) also found a match between his rather brash, unsubtle voice and the character of Don Pizarro. Ultimately, a bit more subtlety both in acting and vocalizing would be to his (and the audience’s) advantage. As the “ingenues” Jacquino and Marzellini, neither Greg Fedderly nor Rebekah Camm appeared all that young, but they both sang with respectable professionalism.

As mentioned at the top, in his second year as music director for LAO, James Conlon has already captured the affection and respect of the Chandler audience. They roared their approval for his leadership of the orchestra. Conlon favors the restless energy of Beethoven’s score, but he doesn’t slight the occasional lyricism of act one. In the slower sections of the Leonore III, the sound seemed to die almost as if ensemble had been lost, and then come roaring back. It’s a tight, pointed sound, well-suited to accompanying the singers. Some may want a more ostentatiously dramatic approach, but the LAO patrons were obviously very pleased with their music director.

Pier’Alli’s production is shared with the Palua de les Arts Reine Sofia in Valencia, Spain. Unless one is planning an extended holiday there, be advised that this LAO Fidelio is strong enough to merit an LA trip for opera lovers far and wide.

Chris Mullins