WASHINGTON, March 17, 2012 – The National Symphony Orchestra dove into the Kennedy Center’s ongoing “Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna Festival” with a big splash Thursday evening, presenting a visceral, vigorous, and sonically spectacular concert performance of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Orchestra, soloists, and chorus (the Choral Arts Society) were running on an extra measure of adrenalin under the inspired conducting of music director Christoph Eschenbach, treating Thursday’s audience to one of the most satisfying musical evenings we’ve had the pleasure to attend in recent memory.
Fidelio is in some ways an operatic oddity. In the first place, while aspiring to the trappings of Grand Opera, it’s basically a German singspiel, or opera with spoken dialogue as opposed to recitative.
Singspiel style operas were generally styled as light comedies. (Think Mozart’s Magic Flute.) Indeed, Fidelio starts out in that vein, opening with a silly spat between a pair of mismatched young lovers, Marzelline and Jaquino, whose female half actually has eyes for another.
But then the opera shifts gears to become mostly what it was meant to be—a melodramatic tale of political repression and redemption involving an unjust imprisonment and a daring rescue attempt—engineered by the heroine, no less. Disguised as a teenaged male named “Fidelio,” the feisty Leonore contrives to rescue her husband Florestan from the clutches of the evil Pizarro, with an unwitting assist from the good-hearted jailer Rocco. Like Mozart’s Magic Flute, Fidelio rises above its humble singspiel origins, providing both dramatic and moral underpinnings to what otherwise could have been standard fare.
During its nearly two-season exile from the under-renovation Kennedy Center Opera House, the Washington National Opera did a surprisingly good job mounting a full production of Fidelio in a temporarily reconfigured Constitution Hall. That cavernous space, however, seemed to reduce Beethoven’s ambitions to the look and feel of a closet drama, robbing the production of dramatic impact and diminishing somewhat its exhilarating finale.
The NSO’s fresh concert version of the opera, performed in the acoustically superior KenCen Concert Hall was visceral and immediate. Even though the opera was not fully staged, it lost none of its dramatic and musical impact and may even have gained a few points in the process.
An additional plus: the singers just didn’t stand in place with music propped up before them. They knew the whole score and knew how to deliver it. Entrances and exits were made with a flourish; Fidelio/Leonore was attired not in a fancy gown but in a black, quasi-military pantsuit appropriate to the part; and the remaining singers were also somberly and minimally costumed, consistent with the opera’s gloomy, dungeon setting.
These first rate vocalists contributed greatly to the evening’s success. At the top of the list was bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny as the villainous Pizarro. Appearing mostly in Act I, Mr. Konieczny’s character, presence, and voice were distinguished by a strong sense of line, an imperious, authoritative delivery, and precise diction. Even within the limited scope of concert opera, he also acted his part convincingly, drawing a strong, good-natured chorus of booing from the audience during his curtain call.
As his undercover nemesis, Fidelio-Leonore, soprano Melanie Diener was earnest and forthright, with her supple, burnished voice proving robust and steady in this role’s frequent excursions in the lower vocal registers. Characterization-wise, however, her portrayal was missing a certain dimension dimension, as her “Fidelio” never seemed to morph satisfyingly into the real Leonore during the opera’s final two tableaux.
Although we didn’t get to see him until he opened the second act, tenor Simon O’Neill approached his role as Beethoven’s much put-upon hero Florestan with sensitivity and balance, portraying his physically weakened character as still defiant in the face of oppression. His clear, clean, almost sweet tenor voice—Irish rather than Italianate in style—was highly expressive and well suited to the role.
Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson sang the role of the good-natured and much put-upon Rocco with wit, humor and compassion, and fellow bass Kyle Ketelsen delivered his small concluding role as the heroes’ ultimate savior, Don Fernando, with dignity and graciousness.
Not to be overlooked in this production were soprano Jegyung Yang and tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney, the two WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists who handled the supporting roles of Beethoven’s ill-suited young lovers, Marzelline (Rocco’s daughter) and Jaquino. Ms. Yang nicely captured her character’s flightiness and resolution. For his part, Mr. Gwaltney deftly expressed his continuing frustration while maintaining a fine legato line. The voices of both these young singers, however, were briefly overwhelmed by the full orchestra during their key opening scene, though the vocal-instrumental blend seemed to improve as the opera progressed.
In many ways, though, the real stars of this production were Mr. Eschenbach, the NSO, and the Choral Arts Society. Mr. Eschenbach and the NSO combined to present some of the best, the most consistent, and exciting Beethoven we’ve yet heard in the Kennedy Center. Like the Cleveland Orchestra under Mr. Eschenbach’s mentor, George Szell, the combined forces often performed like a single, disciplined instrument. Their musical presence was characterized by clean, forceful, and passionate playing in each section.
It was easiest to identify this mastery in the orchestra’s solo opportunities. Both the short “Fidelio” overture (one of four Beethoven composed as he reworked the opera) that opens the opera, and the short march introducing Pizarro were exemplary.
But transcending them both was the orchestra’s performance of the famous “Leonore No. 3” overture—traditionally interposed between the penultimate scene and the finale in many German productions, and in this production as well. A self-contained, operatic tone poem, this overture frequently stands on its own in regular concert performances and it can become a bit hackneyed in less skillful hands. But in Thursday’s performance, the NSO stood up to the challenge with a sweepingly Romantic, world-class performance that took the audience’s collective breath away.
A well-deserved hat tip goes to the Choral Arts Society. They sang brilliantly, even showing off some acting chops in the process. The male chorus of prisoners removed their formal jackets in Act I and hung their heads, portraying in song and action the abject misery of Florestan’s fellow inmates. Simple but effective.
Back in formal wear, the men were joined by the female chorus members for Fidelio’s grand finale, blending with the NSO and the soloists to loft a triumphal chorus to the heavens. It was grand, memorable way to end this quintessentially Beethoven evening.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars. Bravo!)
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man, in Business.
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