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07 Aug 2014

Santa Fe Opera Presents a Passionate Fidelio

Santa Fe Opera presented Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in 2014. Since the sides of the opera house are open, the audience watched the sun redden the low hanging clouds and set below the Sangre de Cristo mountains while Chief Conductor Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the rousing overture. At the same time, Alex Penda as the title character readied herself for the ordeal to come as she endeavored to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Fidelio in Santa Fe

A review by Maria Nockin

Above: Alex Penda as Fidelio and Paul Groves as Florestan in Act II of Fidelio [Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]


Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his only opera, Fidelio, to a German libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner who based it on Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal. Written in 1798, the Bouilly work was also set by Pierre Gaveaux, Simon Mayr, and Ferdinando Paer. Beethoven’s opera had its world premiere at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on November 20, 1805. Unfortunately, French troops were then occupying the city and most of the prospective audience had long since left for safer places. Thus, the first performance was not a success. After some revisions, the composer brought his opera to the stage of the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna on March 29, 1806, but he was still not satisfied with the outcome. He made many more changes and added work by librettist Georg Friedrich Treitschke, for performances at the same theater beginning May 23, 1814. Finally, performances of this hard-wrung opera were successful and it has remained in the international repertory ever since.

Santa Fe Opera presented Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in 2014. This writer saw it on August 5th. Since the sides of the opera house are open, the audience watched the sun redden the low hanging clouds and set below the Sangre de Cristo mountains while Chief Conductor Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the rousing overture. At the same time Alex Penda as the title character readied herself for the ordeal to come as she endeavored to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Since director Stephen Wadsworth updated the story to World War II, Chief Jailer Rocco’s facility bore considerable similarity to a concentration camp. The upper levels of Charlie Corcoran’s set housed offices for Nazi soldiers, including Prison Governor Don Pizzaro whose walls were graced with faux Nazi memorabilia. The lower levels were living quarters for Rocco’s family and Fidelio in Act I, but were shut off by a stone wall for Act II. Camille Assaf’s attractive and practical costumes reflected the time of the Third Reich.

Alex Penda, whose voice is a bit light for the role of Fidelio, was a credible wife dressed as a boy and much of her acting was heart rending. When she whipped out her gun and held it on the villain, Don Pizarro, she had the audience in the palm of her hand. It was the lower-voiced men, however, who had the spectacular voices. Greer Grimsley was an evil Pizarro with wonderfully resonant, well-projected sound. Maestro Bicket did not have to hold down the orchestra for Grimsley’s aria because the bass-baritone has a huge well-focused voice. As Rocco the jailer, baritone Manfred Hemm had a large, warm sound that contrasted well with that of Grimsley and the two men treated the audience to some great music. Devon Guthrie was a bright voiced, perky and efficient Marzelline while Joshua Dennis was a worthy, smooth-voiced Jacquino.

Tenor Paul Groves opened Act II with a smooth, lyrical rendition of the famous aria about darkness and doing the right thing even if the reward is imprisonment. He brought out the composer and librettist’s feelings for those unjustly imprisoned as he sang with controlled emotion. He and Penda were a fascinating couple as she freed him from his chains at the behest of the commanding Don Fernando, Evan Hughes.

Second year apprentices Joseph Dennis and Patrick Guetti were believable prisoners and, led by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston, the rest of the inmates sang with perfect harmony that contrasted with the terrible conditions in which they lived. Harry Bicket gave us a well thought out rendition of this beloved Beethoven opera with strictly controlled tempi and exquisitely played solos by the orchestra’s principals.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Fidelio, Alex Penda; Florestan, Paul Groves; Marzelline, Devon Guthrie; Rocco, Manfred Hemm; Jacquino, Joshua Dennis; Don Fernando, Evan Hughes; Prisoners, Joseph Dennis, Patrick Guetti; Conductor, Harry Bicket; Director, Stephen Wadsworth; Costume Designer, Camille Assaf; Scenic Design, Charlie Corcoran; Lighting design, Duane Schuler; Chorus Master, Susanne Sheston.

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