The Maestro’s Corner: A Forties Fidelio

“Wahre Liebe Fürcht Nicht”

Leonore’s famous aria “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” in which she professes her love for her husband and her fear that she will be discovered. Karita Mattila as Fidelio (Leonore). This is from the 2000s version of this production.

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Emma San Martin, Editor-At-Large

With the 2017 opera season in full swing, it’s often difficult to choose which amazing performance to attend.  However, if you’re thinking of heading to the opera for a classy night out, you should definitely consider going to a performance of Beethoven’s euphoric masterpiece, Fidelio.  The production of Fidelio currently being shown at the Metropolitan Opera is an older one, having first been shown in 2000.  However, with an all-new cast and conductor, it sounds and feels much different from the first version.

In addition, the production itself is a break from tradition.  Fidelio is supposed to be set in Seville, during the late-18th century political upheaval following the French Revolution.  However, the Met’s production places it in an unspecified but much more modern setting.  From the clothing and equipment we see in the production, it hints at a time frame sometime during the forties.  With this shift in date, we also see a shift in the nature of the characters.  Instead of a cruel nobleman in lace and leather, the villain Don Pizarro is a ruthless mafia mobster in a three-piece suit.  Instead of a bumbling soldier in a tricorn hat, the secondary tenor Jaquino is a confused young military recruit in an ill-fitting khaki uniform.  And, instead of shrunken peasants clad in rags, the prisoners’ chorus consists of luckless young political prisoners in dirty white jumpsuits.

The shift is electrifying, but what it really brings home is the timeless nature of this remarkable opera.  Even with all the changes, additions, and modifications, Fidelio remains.  The main character – Leonore, disguised as a prison assistant to rescue her husband – is just as heroic in a blue button-down shirt as she would be in full 18th-century Spanish soldier regalia.  The jailer’s daughter, Marzelline, is just as sweet and innocent in a cherry-red swing dress as she would be in a colonial corset and flounced skirt.  The power of Beethoven’s music carries just as magnificently through the concrete prison as it would in a stone bastille.

The sets, too, are superb, and very evocatively employed.  In the first act, multiple levels of prison cells line the walls, and the pleading hands of the prisoners within are often visible between the bars.  When the prisoners are let out for a brief taste of sunlight, the hesitant emergence of the white jumpsuits and the hushed, heartfelt swell in the music send pangs through the audience.  In the second act, the darkness and squalor of the underground cell is remarkably well portrayed, with high, grimy, water-stained walls, pipes, and dead lights.  It really feels like an underground cell, and the entrance of the singers down a precariously long metal ladder at the back wall further reinforces the impression.

That being said, there are a few aspects of the production that could use some tweaking.  For one thing, the prison setting is slightly too bleak and stereotypically Teutonic to really complement Beethoven’s style of music.  At times, it feels forced, especially during the scenes where it’s crowded with soldiers.  For another thing, the soldiers themselves are far too gentle and disorganized to be forties military men.  They could have gotten away with it if they were not so strictly dressed, but as it is, there is a slight incongruence there as well.  Finally, on a musical-structural note, the transition between the first and second halves of the second act is extremely abrupt and unrealistic, as a wall at the back of the prison is lifted to reveal the sky outside.  The production managers would have done well to simply lower the curtain, play one of Beethoven’s three extra overtures, and raise the curtain on the new scene instead.  This would have had the added advantage of slightly lengthening the runtime of the opera, which is very short, and giving the audience an extra instrumental ear treat.

These flaws, however, are few.  Fidelio shines bright.  And no better words can portray its timeless heroism than those which, while the audience enters, are projected onto the curtain before it rises:

 

Wahre Liebe Fürcht Nicht.

 

This simple German phrase translates to “True love fears nothing.”  This is the key to Fidelio’s magic.  No matter when, where, or how it is portrayed, this opera’s ecstatic celebration of true love and boundless devotion emerges unspoiled.  This production, superbly set and superbly sung, is no exception.

 

If you scroll down on this page: http://www.metopera.org/season/2016-17-season/fidelio-beethoven-tickets/, you will find high-quality, subtitled clips from the latest performances of the production.

 

Author’s Note:  If you’ve been following my articles, you’ll know that I have written about Beethoven’s lone opera Fidelio before.  This first article was a discussion of how Fidelio was a reflection of Beethoven’s desire to marry and have a family.  Initially, I thought that this would suffice to cover Fidelio for once and all.  However, after attending a stellar performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Fidelio, I thought it was worth returning to.  This article focuses on the specifics of the production, and its connection to the music.