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Penda and Groves: Oh, nameless love!
Ken Howard

Heil Dir, Ludwig!

Nazis face the music

July 14, 2014, 11:50 am

The Santa Fe Opera’s summer of ’14 shapes up to be peculiarly political. Their Carmen dabbles in US/Mexico border issues. The forthcoming premiere of Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen will deal with that revolutionary leader’s personal life. And now Beethoven’s Fidelio, from its inception a revolutionary appeal for freedom from political oppression, becomes a World War II drama depicting the triumph of the human spirit—with the help of Allied forces—over Nazi tyranny.

Does it work as a convincing and appropriate metaphor? Not always. Is the production faithful to Beethoven’s sublime score? Absolutely. I don’t recall any SFO production that surpasses this Fidelio for excellence of ensemble, for vocal and orchestral precision and for passionate, nuanced expression of a serious and seriously difficult work. Fidelio had never been presented by the SFO in its 58-year history. But the time has finally arrived.

First, consider director Stephen Wadsworth’s idiosyncratic take on the show. Simply stated, the opera depicts the struggle of Leonore, disguised as the youth, Fidelio, to be reunited with her political-prisoner husband, Florestan. Beethoven’s libretto presents the opera’s arch-villain and prison governor, Don Pizarro, as an aberrant loner, supposedly an agent of Romantic-era post-revolutionary forces for freedom and justice, but in fact acting for himself in his personal vendetta against Florestan. By opera’s end Pizarro’s villainy has been unmasked, the married lovers joyfully reunited, and the status quo ante of an idealized, just government has been achieved.

Then there’s the Wadsworth version. Most likely he sets the action on April 15, 1945, at the notorious Bergen-Belsen prison camp where SS-Hauptsturmführer Pizarro receives word that Allied forces would arrive on this day. That’s a historical fact—they did. His most pressing task? Well, not to destroy the incriminating documentation accounting for the fact that the Allies will encounter a typhus-infested hellhole with 60,000 prisoners and 16,000 unburied bodies (another fact) or set up a plan of defense. No. It’s the imprisoned Florestan who’ll get him into trouble when British/Canadian forces arrive in a few hours.

"Balance, finesse, impetuous movement and delicacy of detail mark his account of the score"

Forget logic, then. Wadsworth’s edgy take permits swastika-laden, sensational dramatic opportunities and a big finish when the Tommys take the stage, waving the Union Jack, beating up the Nazis, freeing the prisoners and getting the happy couple back together.

Turning with greater pleasure, then, to the music. Alex Penda returns to the SFO as Leonore after an absence of 14 years since her debut in Rossini’s many-tenored Ermione. Most Leonores of the past century have been of the trumpeting Wagnerian ilk, as have many Florestans. Not here. Penda’s soprano is persuasively dramatic, but lighter and brighter than we often hear, while packed with enough power to prevail over Beethoven’s large-scale orchestra. It’s a lustrous sound, never more so than in the radiant “Komm, Hoffnung” section of her first act scena. And please note the exceptional French horns there.

As Florestan, Paul Groves returns, now in a heroic tenor role rather than his lyrical Hoffmann of 2010 or as Admète in 2009’s Alceste. Again, this is no leather-lunged reading, but one sensitive to the vocal evolution from, say, a Tamino, into the more dramatic style demanded by early Romantic German opera. Like Penda with whom he’s beautifully matched, the voice is light, bright, powerful and precisely placed. Top notes at full volume show strain, but his opening cry, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” tears at the heart, and the rapturous duet, “O namenlose Freude!” has never sounded more, well, rapturous.

The sturdy Austrian bass, Manfred Hemm, makes a strong impression as Rocco. Though tending to sharpness in his “Gold” aria, Hemm’s ensemble work is impeccable and his stage presence most effective. Devon Guthrie sings the sadly disappointed Marzelline with verve and precision, and Joshua Dennis presents a solid lyrical tenor as hapless Jaquino.

That huge-voiced veteran bass-baritone, Greer Grimsley, struts and frets about the stage as Pizarro, a snarly evocation of all those nightmare Nazis of the silver screen. He’s the scabrous embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann-inspired term, “banality of evil”—loud and soulless.

For the real hero of this Fidelio, though, look no further than Harry Bicket in his debut as SFO’s chief conductor. Balance, finesse, impetuous movement and delicacy of detail mark his account of the score. Climaxes are huge but in scale, and instrumental introductions such as to that heartbreaking prisoners’ chorus,“O welche Lust!” are models of understated sensitivity. Never has the SFO orchestra sounded so splendidly symphonic.

Nor has the chorus, courtesy of Susanne Sheston’s remarkable preparation. It’s the largest SFO has ever fielded: I registered 68 choristers in the huge, Franco Zeffirellian finale, singing like one immense incandescent voice.

The SFO has a fondness for bi-level scenery this summer—first for Carmen and now with sets by Charlie Corcoran, lit by Duane Schuler, costumed by Camille Assaf. Ground floor: Rocco’s kitchen and Fidelio’s Spartan bedroom; upper floor: Pizarro’s office and a grim reception room. Result? Busy multilevel stage action. Effect? Particularly in Wadsworth’s direction of the crucial dungeon scene, pointless distraction.

Still, you can close the eyes and blissfully listen. A company member pointed out that July 12’s opening performance marked the birthday anniversary of SFO founder and general director for 45 years, John Crosby. He would have been 88. He would have been pleased.

Santa Fe Opera House,
301 Opera Drive,
986-5900 $39-$295.
8:30 pm July 16, 25;
8:00 pm July 31; August 5, 12 & 21


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