Theater Reviews

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L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through Oct. 6


Beethoven's only opera got off to a slow start. Although the maestro's name was well-known in musical circles, his forte was said to be in his symphonies, his piano and violin concertos, his piano sonatas, string quartets and chamber music.

In 1803, when he was commissioned to write an opera, it generally was presumed in the musical community that his effort would fail. After several false starts, numerous revisions, Beethoven's cranky withdrawal of his opera over royalty battles and a span of 11 years, the "overnight success" of "Fidelio" in 1814 foiled the naysayers.

The work's tale is one of heroism, political and artistic freedom, liberation, conjugal fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and glory, all of which drew Beethoven to the model of "Leonore, or Married Love," an earlier French opera. Fidelio is the name Leonore takes when she disguises herself as a man and goes in search of her "disappeared" husband, Florestan, whom she fears has been unlawfully imprisoned.

The brave wife gets close to the jailer by agreeing to marry his daughter, and soon discovers her husband at the point of death in the deepest dungeon. Her loyalty and strength of purpose save the day, Florestan, and ultimately the rest of the oppressed prisoners.

Anja Kampe is lovely as the faithful Lenore; she has a bountiful fullness in her voice, an adjective that isn't normally used for a soprano, and a slender one at that. Whatever majesty she meets in Beethoven's soaring notes is only an incentive to pour on her own vocal power. Even though the story is a familiar one, and most unlikely even in the "heroic" style, and even though one has to suspend a huge amount of disbelief to accept this fragile woman as a man, the audience is visibly moved when the denouement is reached. As Florestan, Klaus Florian Vogt has an attractively high tenor voice that melds well with Kampe's.

In the shorter roles, which are mostly forgotten during the sturm und drang, Rebekah Camm as the unfortunate Marzelline, Matti Salminen as her father, Rocco, and Greg Fedderly as Jacquino, her jilted fiance, hold their own with the generally talented cast. Eike Wilm Schulte as Don Pizarro is stolidly nasty as the man you love to hate, and Oleg Bryjak is fine as elder statesman Don Fernando.

Since Beethoven's forte was orchestral music, he initially composed four separate overtures for his opera; he finally chose the one numbered IV as his opener, and I and II were set aside. The absolute high point of the current version uses III, sometimes also discarded, between scenes in Act II.

Not that one has to wait until halfway into the second act to hear great music. Even though the first act's libretto seems somewhat trite and derivative (in the Singspiel style of operetta, which uses conversation instead of arias), the music is still in the grand Beethoven tradition. Hopscotching to that second act orchestral piece, as played so magnificently by the L.A. Opera Orchestra under the outstanding James Conlon, the effect is show-stopping. The story the music tells is complete without words, breathtakingly grand, as magnificent as any of Beethoven's symphonies. It's what music is about.

A quibble with a directorial decision: A long series of state-of-the-art video projections is startling and stunning, it is true, and purportedly keeps the audience's attention through the Act II overture. The projected chain links descend and serve to drag us down into the prison's deepest dungeons. But the unspoken suggestion is that the long introduction needs some assistance for a visually oriented, contemporary audience. The huge applause at the end of the light display, which may have proved the director's point, nevertheless seemed out of place on opening night, coming, so to speak, from another dimension, disturbing the deeper pleasure of the orchestra's less visual effect and even stopping, for a moment, the music's flow.

Newly appointed chorus master Grant Gershon proves his way with a chorus well in the Prisoners' Chorus -- "O, What Joy!" -- as the half-starved, shackled inmates see the sun for the first time, and in the final epic chorus when Lenore unshackles Florestan and the prisoners praise her bravery.

The last time I saw "Fidelio" was in East Germany in 1987, three years before the infamous wall came down, making this a memorably apropos performance to me, for L.A. Opera and director and designer Pier'Alli's production plays to just as great an effect.

FIDELIO
Presented by Los Angeles Opera
Credits:
Composer: Ludwig Van Beethoven
Libretto: Joseph Sonnleithner, Georg Friedrich Treitschke
Based on the drama "Lenore, ou l'amour conjugal" by: Jean Nicholas Bouilly
Conductor: James Conlon
Director/set designer: Pier'Alli
Lighting designer: Guido Levi
Projection designer: Sergio Metalli/Ideogamma
Choreographer: Nicola Bowie
Los Angeles Opera Concertmaster: Stuart Canin
Associate conductor/chorus master: Grant Gershon
Cast:
Jacquino: Greg Fedderly
Marzelline: Rebekah Camm
Rocco: Matti Salminen
Leonore: Anja Kampe
Don Pizarro: Eike Wilm Schulte
First Prisoner: Robert MacNeil
Second Prisoner: James Creswell
Florestan: Klaus Florian Vogt
Don Fernando: Oleg Bryjak
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