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Marcy Stonikas (Leonore/Fidelio)  [Photo by Jessi Franko Designs LLC]
05 Jul 2017

Fidelio at Princeton Festival

Fidelio is a great opera, but not an easy one to perform.  Much of the music is stirring, including some among the most profoundly moving passages in all opera. The revolutionary political idealism that underlies the opera is inspiring, particularly to those in German-speaking lands, where it inspires reverence.

Fidelio at Princeton Festival

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Marcy Stonikas (Leonore/Fidelio)

Photos by Jessi Franko Designs LLC

 

Yet one senses throughout Beethoven’s inexperience with the operatic genre. He toiled on Fidelio for over a decade, through three versions and four overtures, complaining that it would have been easier to start over. The result bears the marks of a struggle, not entirely successful, to impose coherence on conflicting plot elements and musical styles.

The bourgeois domesticity with which the opera begins—based on a trivial matter of unrequited petit-bourgeois love—alternates, often abruptly, with the universal struggle for political justice against tyranny. Beethoven increasingly came to see the latter as the opera’s real theme; it is no coincidence that the real-world story that inspired the libretto took place during the Reign of Terror in 1794. Yet he never entirely erased the traces of the previous, more prosaic theme.

Jessica-Franko-06.15.17_Fidelio_0035_EDIT.pngOpening staging

Of course the personal and the political are connected: in order to fight for universal human rights, Beethoven seems to be saying, we must transcend more immediate concerns about material comfort, family attachments and personal safety. Or, more subtly, we must learn that a genuine commitment to the welfare of those in our immediate surroundings may well imply that we struggle for universal justice.

Yet Beethoven never entirely succeeds in weaving the personal and the political into a coherent musical tapestry. Fidelio set a new standard for music of heroic grandeur: at its best, it nobly portrays secular idealism by drawing on elements of religious music, as in numerous choruses and the solo numbers of Leonore and Florestan—and, later, in the Ninth Symphony. Yet the opera also contains numerous Singspiel, opera buffa and spoken elements that seem to have parachuted in from another opera. Struggling to combine the two types of expression, Beethoven’s score repeatedly thrusts powerfully forward and upwards only to be brought back down earth by comic relief, lighter music, and spoken dialogue.

These awkward tensions have an important implication: a great live performance of Fidelio demands that performers infuse every moment with vocal and orchestral conviction so powerful as to sweep away all hesitations and misgivings. In the mid-20th century, many treated Fidelio as a grand symphony and looked to great conductors to supply this forward impetus.

Jessica-Franko-06.15.17_Fidelio_0116_EDIT.pngDanielle Talamantes (Marzelline) & Michael Kuhn (Jaquino)

In this spirit, conductor Richard Tang Yuk, director of the Princeton Festival, invoked the admirable tradition of inserting the epic Leonore Overture No. 3 before the final scene—a practice now threatened by musical literalism, short audience attention spans, and union wage scales. Here, as elsewhere, the slimmed-down orchestra played smoothly and surprisingly error-free throughout. This is no small feat, as the score contains cruelly exposed wind parts that occasionally embarrass even the world’s greatest musicians.

Yet interpretively, the orchestral playing was less than the sum of its parts. Yuk’s approach to the score—as has been true before in Princeton—tends to privilege smoothness and accuracy over energy and attack. He selected cautious tempos and smoothed Beethoven’s dynamics to the middle of the spectrum. The overtures and the opening to Act 2 were lovely in places but lacked sweep and drama. A more impetuously inflected approach to the orchestral score, as Beethoven himself reportedly conducted it, would have been welcome—even at the cost of a few more bloopers. The orchestra was also generally too loud when accompanying singers and too soft (or improperly accented) in grand orchestral moments like the Leonore No. 3.  The dynamics in the vocal score—except in a few exceptional numbers—tend to be p or pp when anyone is singing, and marked louder and regularly punctuated by Beethoven’s distinctive accented dynamics (sfp and fp) when he wants the orchestra to be more prominent.

The primary responsibility for bringing this Fidelio to life, therefore, fell on the singers. The Princeton Festival casts solidly and this year it assembled seven vocalists, each of which is the model of the modern American singer. Armed with degrees from top conservatories, competition awards, and experience in young singers’ programs, most are now in their 30s, working their way up in a tough profession. At major houses like the MET, they sing comprimario roles or cover more established colleagues; at regional companies, they sometimes assume lead roles. Most also do concert or Broadway work, and several have foreign experience.

Jessica-Franko-06.16.17_Fedelio_0580_EDIT.png(L-R) Marcy Stonikas (Leonore/Fidelio), Noah Baetge (Florestan), Gustav Andreassen (Rocco), Cameron Jackson (Don Fernando), Joseph Barron (Don Pizarro)

By far most impressive among them is Noah Baetge. From the first word of Florestan’s Act II recitative—a striking messa di voce from pianissimo to forte and back on “Gott!”—he displayed a voice of potential greatness. I have rarely heard any tenor, live or in recordings, so effortlessly navigate Beethoven’s unforgiving heights, to which Baetge adds heroic brilliance, a sweet timbre and spot-on intonation. A bit more weight in some swiftly moving passages lower down and better German diction (especially spoken) would have rendered this performance worthy of a major house. I have not heard such a thrilling voice in live opera in Princeton since the young Lisette Oropesa appeared a decade ago in Lucia di Lammermoor—a role she reprises this fall at Covent Garden.

Raised in Chicago and now based (like Baetge) in Seattle, Soprano Marcy Stonikas has sung Leonore at the Vienna Volksoper. She deploys a voice of considerable weight with conviction. For lack of more freely soaring high notes and warmer low ones, and a general cautiousness of utterance, the character of Leonore never came entirely to life.

The rest of the cast sang with uniform professionalism. Norwegian-American bass Gustav Andreassen made a solid Rocco, even without the warm bass, crisp articulation and clear diction appropriate to his voluble paternalism. Soprano Danielle Talamantes (a graduate of nearby Westminster College) and tenor Michael Kuhn (who appeared in “A Little Night Music” last year in Princeton) waxed passionate as Marzelline and Jaquino, even if somewhat they lacked some smoothness and charm. (Kuhn, an experienced Broadway singer, did act convincingly.) Pennsylvanian bass-baritone Joseph Barron, returning after “Peter Grimes” last year, chewed the scenery as a truly villainous Don Pizarro. Cameron Jackson, still attending graduate school in North Carolina, presented a believable Don Fernando. The chorus sang lustily, with fine solos from the two prisoners.

Jessica-Franko-06.15.17_Fidelio_0868_EDIT.pngMarcy Stonikas (Leonore/Fidelio), Noah Baetge (Florestan), Joseph Barron (Don Pizarro)

The Princeton Festival’s long-time stage director, Steven LaCosse, set the action in modern Spain, with Florestan as a union organizer, Rocco as an older prison warden, Marzelline as his daughter, Jaquino as a janitor, Don Fernando as a prime minister in a fancy grey suit, and so on. Some of the resulting dramatic action, especially in Act I, was remarkably convincing to a modern audience.

While I deplore, for example, the modern habit of distracting audiences by “staging” overtures and “entre’acts” behind a scrim. (This is particularly annoying when the music from which one is being distracted is a timeless Beethoven overture.) Yet I must admit that this approach worked well: during the Fidelio overture, we saw Florestan being arrested for holding a union meeting and during the Leonore No. 3 we saw loved ones greeting the freed prisoners one-by-one as they emerged from the subterranean prison. Both stagings tastefully went dark at the recapitulation, giving music lovers their moment, too.

Similarly impressive was the use of class distinctions to underscore conflicts, as with Marzelline’s unwillingness to give Jaquino the time of day apparently because he is a custodian. For the first time ever, I heard an audience actually laugh at the comic interchanges in the first scene. And amidst the concluding jubilation, I appreciated the conceit of the lead characters giving brief TV interviews.

Otherwise the sets honed to the successful formula of opera at the Princeton Festival: simple, suggestive, realistic and brightly lit. One suggestion for the future. It is always worth the expense—especially in a hall like Matthews Theater, with exceptionally harsh and cold sound—to create acoustically resonant scenery. Above all, that means avoiding “open” sets (scenery without backs, sides or a top), which project substantially less vocal sound to the audience (up to 25% less, according to some studies). This surely contributed to the persistent imbalance between orchestra and singers—except in the case of Noah Baetge, a singer I hope to hear again soon.

Overall, with this Fidelio Princeton Festival extends a string of remarkably accomplished and successful operas—an impressive achievement not least because each production receives only two performances. The audience, which filled about ¾ of the hall, responded enthusiastically.

Andrew Moravcsik

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