Opera 'Fidelio' an engaging bit of Beethoven

November 19, 1996|By Pierre Ruhe | Pierre Ruhe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Fidelio" not a great opera? Nonsense. Beethoven's only opera stands alongside the Ninth Symphony and "Missa Solemnis" as his titanic achievements for voices with orchestra. The Baltimore Opera Company's new production of "Fidelio" opened Saturday at the Lyric Theatre, led by the powerful Canadian soprano Frances Ginzer as the title character.

Actually, there is no one named Fidelio -- it's the name Leonore takes as she dresses like a man to rescue her husband, Florestan, from unjust political imprisonment. Perhaps Beethoven saw himself, growing increasingly deaf, as Florestan, in solitary confinement, and with Leonore as his muse, bringing him out of isolation, into the sunshine.

The cast Saturday was balanced across the roles. Ginzer brought to the purposeful figure of Leonore a dashing quality, with her narrow vibrato and a silver-edged timbre that lent the role an added dignity. Jan Grissom, as Marzelline, had some lovely notes and bantered well with Gran Wilson, who vigorously sang the role of Jacquino, her suitor.

Tenor Wolfgang Fassler's Florestan, in his hallucinatory aria "Und spur ich nicht linde," was wobbly and ill-focused, sounding as if he had indeed suffered two years of solitary confinement. Greer Grimsley sang the villain, Don Pizarro, with a firm sense of being sinister, solid in all respects except articulation.

Leonore is heroic, Florestan is helpless and naive, Pizarro properly villainous, but Rocco the jailer, sung to perfection by Malcolm Smith, is the most interesting character in the opera. His flexible morality and opportunism cut a sharp contrast with the other rather two-dimensional characters, leaving the listener to wonder just whose side he's on. Smith's rich, cheerful bass voice and grandfatherly demeanor added ambiguity to his foul behavior. He participates in the oppression, knowing Florestan is jailed unjustly, yet follows orders to starve him to death.

Pizarro later implores Rocco to murder the prisoner immediately (lest Pizarro be caught in his own web of corruption), but Rocco protests he cannot kill a man. It's the hypocrisy of human nature: He'll passively let a man suffer but won't give him the same end swiftly. He sides with whomever holds the power. (In Beethoven's earlier draft of this opera, Rocco is seized as a collaborator.)

Alexander Sander conducted the orchestra and chorus with sensitivity, at moderate tempos that gave weight and allowed the singers time to breathe. Beethoven's music has a tamper-proof quality to it; play all the notes, follow the basic indications in the score, and the music will come to life. The gorgeous Act I quartet was taken at a relaxed pace, with bittersweet expansion.

With singers so engaging, it was a shame the production, by director Michael Harrison and set designer Gary Eckhart, was four-square, literal, unimaginative. Early scenes are better blocked than later ones: When Jacquino suggestively wraps himself in a sheet Marzelline is folding in their opening duet, we are off to a good start. But by opera's end, particularly the climax scene with Pizarro rushing Leonore, timings and distances are uncomfortable.

The set, a huge semicircular gray and green wall spaced with cell doors, outlined the courtyard. Costumes were the stock tailcoats and breeches, circa 1800. This being a jail for political XTC prisoners, some were in rags, some in expensive (but dirty) red coats and wigs. The lighting was stagnant and gloomy, as befits a prison, but the courtyard was never bright enough to contrast with the bleakness of the dungeon. The stage mysteriously grew darker when the prisoners' chorus sang of sunlight.

A drama with a message as universal as "Fidelio's" begs for intelligent, imaginative treatment of its themes. We don't need prisoners garbed in sci-fi costumes or other post-modern gimmicks to get the big points, but a little more innovation from the producers could enhance its timeless message on the human condition.

Despite a lack of imaginative visuals, this musically satisfying production of "Fidelio" may be warmly recommended for its stylish singing by the principals and for the rich, immortal score.

'Fidelio'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: Tomorrow at 7: 30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8: 15 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $19-$95 Call: (410) 727-6000

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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