Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

Handel's first 'Israelite oratorio': Esther at the London Handel Festival

It’s sometimes suggested that it was the simultaneous decline of the popularity of Italian opera seria among Georgian audiences and, in consequence, of the fortunes of Handel’s Royal Academy King’s Theatre, that led the composer to turn his hand to oratorio in English, the genre which would endear him to the hearts of the nation.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):