Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio is a moving tribute to human love and freedom, a theme that is universal but of particular relevance today, and it was a happy occasion that Jürgen Flimm’s production was revived at the Met, eleven years after its last appearance, with a strong ensemble cast. Beethoven struggled with the piece for over a decade. Writing for voices and creating a seamless musical narrative presented difficulty for a composer brilliant in orchestral and instrumental music. His opera is strongest in its orchestral passages and choral scenes, and presents considerable challenges to soloists. The music does not allow much leeway from its scores; Beethoven seems to treat human voice as an instrument.
Adrianne Pieczonka was Leonore, Florestan’s wife who, in search of her husband, disguises herself as a man, “Fidelio”. In Act 1, she sang and acted the two sides of the character with thoughtful brilliance. As an eager apprentice at the prison in public, she was brisk and efficient; as a desperate but hopeful wife in private, she sang with tender emotion as well as with fiery anger in “Abscheulicher!” Her German diction was excellent, and she made the dialogue scenes with her employer, prison warden Rocco and his daughter Marzelline, who is in love with “Fidelio,” engaging.
Klaus Florian Vogt, who has returned to the Met after just two performances of Lohengrin in 2006, sang Florestan’s challenging first aria, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” beginning with a soft whisper, and gradually building to achieve a full volume. He never forced his distinct lyrical voice but rode with and above instrumental lines. His clear voice stood out in ensemble scenes in Act 2, which celebrate liberty from political tyranny for him and all other prisoners. He was a sensitive actor who could convey the character’s despair and joy in expressive singing.
The opera's structure can be disorienting in Act 1, with duets, trios, quartets, solos and dialogue. Conductor Sebastian Weigle chose a brisk tempo from the rousing overture, and moved the drama quickly and efficiently. He never sacrificed the dramatic excitement of Beethoven’s melodies, and was sensitive to and supportive of the singers’ need to take a breath or slow down. The Met Orchestra played withgreat energy and shimmering elegance. The woodwinds and brass sections stood out in their agility and control.
The two leads were supported by a good Met ensemble. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was a sweet but rich-voiced Marzelline. Falk Struckmann, who previously sang the villain Don Pizarro at the Met, was her father Rocco, with a booming voice. Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro sang his punishing aria “Ha! welch ein Augenblick!” with menace and power. As the minister Don Fernando who saves Florestan from execution and emancipates the prisoners, Gunther Groissböck brought his youthful but warm bass to make a strong impression in his brief scene. Tenor David Portillo as Jaquino, a prison assistant in love with Marzelline, contributed to the domestic drama of Act 1 with his clear and penetrating high notes.
Two choral scenes anchor the opera’s most moving moments. The Prisoners’ Chorus in Act 1 was of particular poignancy as the Met male chorus sang their joy at the temporary freedom from prison cells and the desire for “Freiheit” (freedom) in a soaring climax. The tempo was a slow and deliberate Andante, highlighting the emotional undercurrent of the music. The final scene, a joyous reunion of freed prisoners with their families, joined by Leonore and Florestan, was another memorable moment, with rousing human voices mixing with the powerful orchestra to conclude the opera.
The strategic placement of the chorus close to the front of the stage without interfering with the principal singers in both scenes was part of a nice theatrical touch by Jürgen Flimm. He updated the setting from the late 18th-century Spain to an unspecified modern day nation with an uneasy coexistence of civilian and military powers. The set is dominated by tall gray walls which give way to bright open space at the end. The prison scene, with cells placed stage left at an angle, is cluttered with every day tools and supplies as well as with weapons. Florestan’s dungeon is dark, with a pile of prisoners' suitcases stacked stage right. At the end of the opera, a large statue of a mounted military figure is torn down and Pizarro is about to be hanged. While some of these details seem unnecessary, the production overall does not detract the central tenet of the opera: celebration of liberty achieved through compassion.
Find Opera now